Gamification: engagement nirvana or emperor’s new clothes?


If you have even a passing interest in employee engagement you’ve probably come across the term gamification. A typically crass hybrid of a word invented by the largely technology-based gaming industry. It’s intended to describe the use of largely online, interactive games in the workplace designed to increase or enhance employee skills- development or engagement. And that has to be a good thing, doesn’t it?

As with the so-called social media frenzy however, and so many other aspects of corporate life, the gaming fans run the risk of alienating rather than engaging much of the audience given that the beauty of most engagement techniques is in the blend. Sure let’s celebrate the march of technology and embrace the freedoms and opportunities advanced gaming technology brings. But let’s keep it in perspective folks!

One thing we’re all born with is the ability to play. Whether it’s constructing new worlds via the imagination of a five-year old; dropping the entrenched facade of the corporate uniforms we all don from time to time both literally and psychologically and allowing ourselves to have fun at work …..or just finding our own toes fascinating as pre-toddling babes, we all know how to play. We may dismiss it at times or may occasionally lose our way but we all instinctively know the power of a good game. And we often do it best of all when we have little more than a few physical props, a group of like minds, a common goal, encouragement, support, space and time.

Most of our homes are fast becoming wi-fi palaces and software citadels. Sure we can all enjoy an evening on the Wii as the Redknapp clan would have us believe they spend most of their time doing. But I’m willing to bet that Jamie still dreams about his England caps while Louise revisits her own Wembley appearances before she falls asleep at night.

I wasn’t the least bit surprised that a recent trip to the cinema with our own troupe to see the latest Marvel offering The Avengers was a huge success and that the games consoles have been replaced by action figures, role play games and colouring pens for some weeks since. Far better to choose the super hero who exemplifies the qualities you hold dear and act out those super powers with your mates than push buttons while watching a screen, essentially on your own.

Of course there’s room for  virtual reality alongside the actual. But never underestimate the appetite of people for face to face interactions with and for their mates, chums,  colleagues, tribe or team.

So while you consider the claims of the software developers promising remote learning nirvana or positioning so-called gamification developments as if play was invented yesterday, reflect on how easily, naturally and readily people interact, become involved and yes, engage, if the conditions are right. And while you wrestle with innovative ways to credibly and impactfully hold back the tide of pessimism and negativity that is an omnipresent threat in testing economic times, it’s worth reminding yourself that gamification is first and foremost about people, relationships, attitude, involvement and empowerment rather than technology. It needn’t be expensive and should be relatively simple to implement. But the aim should nearly always be to involve and discover the latent superhero qualities in the many, not to implant extraordinary superpowers in the elite few.


Brand Watch: Malmaison “wows” with employee engagement programme


I’ve long been a fan of the Malmaison brand having had the pleasure of spending considerable time at a number of their facilities during my travels.
I’ve always found the employees to be great brand ambassadors and that this positive and empowered behavioural culture worked well with the physical brand trappings. I featured Malmaison in my second book, Brand Champions (2011), a case-study-based guide to the role that everyday employees play in bringing brands to life from within.
It was pleasing therefore, to read  Michelle Stevens’ article in People Management on 22 May 2012 detailing how the staff recognition scheme had “paid off at Malmaison”.
The group received more than 8,000 customer ‘wows’ as part of an engagement plan, largely as a result of empowering and rewarding customer service initiatives. The programme has also reduced staff turnover significantly and increased consumer loyalty at Malmaison and Hotel du Vin. Kate Underwood, the company’s people development manager announced at a recent HR Forum that  the hotel chain had introduced a ‘Wow’ employee incentive scheme to drive customer service in response to the recession.“Our challenge in 2010 as a boutique brand was to reduce costs like everyone else, but ensure that our customer service did not struggle,” she explained to delegates on the Aurora cruise liner.As a result the Wow campaign was launched by the firm’s CEO in June 2010, which trained and encouraged staff to provide an extra level of customer service or give away complimentary items at their discretion.The need to “involve the trust and empowerment of staff” to go the extra mile for special occasions or rectify a complaint situation was key, Underwood added.Employees were then able to report when they had ‘wowed’ a guest, which was signed off and logged by their manager, the audience heard.Employees achieving 10 Wows were rewarded with a free meal in one of the hotel restaurants, while the ‘Wow of the month’ won £150 and personal congratulations from the CEO. Staff recognised as offering the two best customer service examples of the year won a trip abroad.

More than 8,000 Wows have been recorded to date, with 650 occurring in the first two months of the scheme as hotels competed in a weekly league table.

Underwood explained that since the introduction of the campaign, the proportion of customer service related complaints had dropped from 69 per cent to 17 per cent.

In 2011, staff turnover dropped 17 per cent and customer loyalty had increased, with repeat business up by 51 per cent.

Underwood said that against those improved figures, the total cost of complimentary items had only been £6,500.

She added that Wow training was now included in inductions and some of the special touches instigated by staff – such as those around birthdays and anniversaries – had become standard customer service elements.

Furthermore, recent employee surveys found that 96 per cent of staff now felt that they received excellent customer service training, and the proportion of staff proud to work for Malmaison & Hotel du Vin had increased from 87 per cent to 98 per cent.

“What made the programme innovative was the simplicity of the message,” said Underwood. “We highlighted that service was our top priority.”

More positive reinforcement for the fact that employee engagement initiatives are largely cost  negative at least, and at best can be a hugely powerful way of ensuring that employees feel involved and empowered to keep the promises made by the marketing department. What FD worth his salt wouldn’t endorse that business case, especially during these austere times?

It ain’t what you do but the way that you do it.


There’s a catchy 80s tune  by Bananarama which includes the lines “It ain’t what you do but the way that you do it. Ain’t what you say but the way that you say it”. Oddly I couldn’t get it out of my head this week.

As part of the research for an employer brand assignment, I had been watching a series of dvds of the leadership team of a well-known brand delivering an address to their employees…and I guess my mind wandered a little. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one.

During the talk, clad in suits and ties they took turns to stand behind a lectern with their backs to a Powerpoint deck and repeated a well-rehearsed series of phrases which included the terms wellbeing; diversity, engagement and employee satisfaction.

It reminded me how much these words have become a non-sensory, almost corporate version of Orwellian double-speak for emotive but oddly business-critical issues.

I’m sure that like me, most of the intended audience would have been lulled into tolerating this sort of 20-minute ritual by the status of the presenters, intonation and the gravity implied by the setting. Yet judging by the feedback, the intended audience clearly failed to understand most of what was being said.

I couldn’t help feeling that had at least some of the speakers, who I know to be passionate about their job and who had a difficult message to sell, injected at least a degree of realistic context, humanity and empathy into the piece both in words and delivery style, they would certainly have connected with the audience. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that they had been sitting at one of the tables facing the stage.

Perhaps if they had paid at least some attention to the economic backdrop against which the talk was taking place (severe financial challenges etc) and focused on the business case for both the business and the individuals, they would have come across as sympathetic yet capable of making informed decisions in the best interests of the business, a position which few would be able to disagree with.

Most of all, however, they needed to recognise, like most of us do from time to time, that the semantics matter. Despite the catchiness of the Bananarama tune, those 80s sirens were wrong. BOTH what you say AND the way you say it matters.

Firstly, it’s clear that the business, like many of their competitors, needs to find ways to turn speeches like this into  dialogue at a local level. The topics they were talking about have perception problems. They’re seen as luxuries for the good times. Employees under-fire are always looking for the devil in the detail. They don’t take apparent platitudes at face value. So it’s the role of the leadership team at all levels to point out that there’s the same expectation about ROI/return on investment for the inappropriately termed soft skills programmes as there is for any other initiative whether in terms of tapping into discretionary effort; innovation or just keeping the collective consciousness connected with the corporate strategy and motivated to keep going.

If the notion of wellbeing or diversity has truly been embraced by the board in spite of the economic climate and, heaven forfend, isn’t a ruse, then it’s something to shout about and the least they can do is make the effort to share what that means in language the audience can relate to and explain the business case as the executive team sees it. That’s what people expect from their leaders. They don’t appreciate compliance dressed up as favours. And they deplore corporate catharsis cloaked in the trappings of employee engagement and delivered by a speech accompanying a bi-annual survey that everyone suspects no-one really intends to action.

The acid test of a leader: “Would I follow this person into battle?”


Bill George (2003), in True North, one of the seminal texts on leadership and authenticity, defines the concept of authentic leadership as, in effect, being true to yourself. This means understanding and being true to your values, finding your own style and ensuring that there is appropriate fit between your values and the organisation you represent.

He refers to 5 dimensions:

1. Understanding and pursuing your purpose with passion

2. Practicing solid values

3. Leading with your heart

4. Establishing connected relationships

5. Demonstrating self-discipline.

Being your own person is absolutely key, it allows the leader to be objective and independent. Understanding what the real you is can be an altogether trickier undertaking. Clarifying the true culture and values of your organisation is a great deal more complex than consulting the marketing literature; but ensuring that the real you fits with the brand of your organisation is the trickiest proposition of all.

Authentic leadership is the central challenge facing anyone in a leadership role, who is concerned with brand management and believes that employee engagement is the key to effective brand management. It is the challenge that now faces true ceos, or as Caroline Hempstead, AstraZeneca’s group corporate communications lead puts it in Brand Engagement:

“The best role models and most effective communicators I’ve known are all:

  • astute business leaders who are positive about engagement, not just pushing information
  • good at simplifying and staying on message,linking information to develop a consistent story, adapted for audiences
  • comfortable in their own skin, so their communication is authentic and consistent with other aspects of their leadership style
  • as good at listening as they are at communicating
  • being themselves and, therefore, they’re inspirational but also predictable which adds to the credibility of the message

The acid test always is “would I follow this person into battle”? That’s a characteristic which owes a lot to integrity and authenticity rather than being a slick communicator.