A world of sloppy thinking, part 2: Journalism

Sometimes, it seems that we live in parallel worlds. Like this one:

Exhibit A: ReadWriteWeb

A news story from ReadWriteWeb, titled “Salesforce.com’s Chief Scientist on Why Gamification is the Future of Work“. Quote: “One way to motivate those workers is by incorporating game mechanics into the workplace, especially when it comes to rewarding worker performance. Awarding symbolic tokens akin to Foursquare badges when a worker masters a new skill, for example, can both serve to reward that person and establish what people’s skill levels are.”

In another, parallel universe, there was this keynote given by the chief scientist of Salesforce.com, JP Rangaswami. It’s very first words were: “I want to start with a simple intellectual exercise: Let’s all try to form a sentence with the words gamification, enterprise, pig, and lipstick.”

He continued: “The thing I want to avoid is for people to walk away from this presentation with the view that if work sucks, you can just put the lipstick of points and badges and completion bars and leaderboards on and suddenly make work exciting. That’s really not what this is about. … It’s like saying ‘I’ve gone green’ or ‘organic’ as a company by painting myself green.”

To summarize the course of his argument (like a journalist would): The Internet has changed the boundary conditions of today’s work to such an extent that we face a paradigm shift in work organisation for which we lack the tools – but games have solved similar coordination problems and could therefore serve as a useful inspiration: “Gamification at the enterprise is not a fad. It is not about providing extrinsic rewards for crap work. If work is crap, let’s fix that problem and not put any lipstick on it. It is tools that allow a significant paradigm shift from hierarchical, linear, top-down decision making work to non-linear, networked, personally selected teams, tasks, and outcomes.”

According to classic theory, modern, Taylorist/Fordist firms exist to solve the problem of transaction costs: It is more efficient and easier to finance to create one big organisational body with a common goal and established processes than individuals having to coordinate and finance every single transaction. Such firms create hierarchies to prioritize resources: Because transaction costs and business process switching costs are high, someone trusted and smart should make all those costly decisions.

But the Internet has in many cases all but eradicated transaction costs, switching costs, and big upfront investments. Today’s knowledge work is deeply non-routine, non-linear, and lumpy – not an even, steady assembly line stream. The exception is the rule, so pattern recognition is more important for problem solving than setting up, learning and conforming to business processes. Also, exposing knowledge and problems to the broadest possible number of eyeballs becomes more efficient than codifying rules and best practices.

All this means that enterprises have to shift from a mindset and organisational systems of Fordist/Taylorist control to a mindset and systems of autonomous networked individuals. For that, we can learn a number of things from games:

“Genres are values”: Matching people and organisations
Bartle’s player types describe core motivations for engaging in games, and different game genres broadly cater to one or the other motivation. This notion of “genre” loosely matches the values and ethics of a company. When you decide to join (and stay in) a company, you do so based on whether its “genre” fits you as a personality. There are other models to slice human motivations, but player types give us an easy-to-memorize shorthand.

From company induction to learning sandboxes
The “onboarding” or “induction” process of a new employee upon arrival in a company is very inefficient compared to the learning-by-doing happening in video game tutorials: They create “sandboxes”, protected environments in which one can try out and learn all controls and mechanics without danger of doing any harm. Can we translate that into company induction, and do we provide enough time to learn all the “controls”?

Measuring and certifying capablities: Matching tasks and teams
Work has morphed from hierarchies structured around revenues attached to customers and products to networks of capabilities and relations. How do we adequatly measure and value those: Human capital, knowledge capital, klout? Analysing online social graphs and reputation signals are first inroads today into assessing the value of capablities and relations of a worker, but we need more than that.

With the structural shift from control hierarchies towards flat networks, more and more autonomy and choice move to the individual worker, especially when it comes to team and task selection: What to do when with whom? Thus, discoverability and qualification of matching both of tasks and team members becomes crucial: Tasks have to be qualified in a way that signals who – a person with what minimum capabilities – would be eligible to that task, and people have to be able to easily discover tasks matching their skill profile and team members complementing it.

This is where “badges” can have meaning in the workplace – as certifications of certain mastered capabilities or skill levels. The same holds for levels, leaderboards, or progress bars: Through these mechanics, games provide clear communal feedback – where you stand in relation to peers, skill ladders, tasks, past achievements, etc., allowing you to autonomously coordinate, adapt, and improve.

Save and replay: Learning in a lifestreaming, zero blame environment
Games offer the ability to save game states, even to record and replay passages of gameplay to assess one’s strategies and performance. Also, they constitute a safe environment where losing comes at no cost. If we would combine lifestreaming – continuous data logging or our daily doing – with a zero blame work culture, companies could become ideal learning spaces, where teams could save and replay logs of past events, “failure” becomes learning about what does not work, and solutions that did not work under certain circumstances could be saved for later points in time when they might become applicable.

Now this is a bold tour d’horizon with many details left to be filled in – who will issue metrics and qualifiers for tasks and capabilities, and how cost-benefit efficient is that compared to traditional delegation? How to prevent gaming the system? Are player types really a good way of sorting through employee psychology? But be that as it may, in this weird, parallel universe, JP Rangaswami never once spoke about motivating employees by awarding symbolic tokens. In fact, he strongly opposed it and warned of side effects like digital sweatshop exploitation and the hidden costs of extrinsic rewards. Yet in our world, what we read and likely commit to memory is: “Salesforce guy says badges motivate workers.”

Exhibit B: VentureBeat

On April 14, 2011, VentureBeat released a story with the following title: “By 2015, 50 percent of companies will embrace gamification, Gartner says“. In another story from June 13, VentureBeat repeats in the body text of the story, linking to the previous story: “Market research firm Gartner says that 50 percent of companies will embrace gamification by 2015“.

Again, in another, parallel universe, there was this press release by Gartner from April 12, 2011 which stated that “By 2015, More Than 50 Percent of Organizations That Manage Innovation Processes Will Gamify Those Processes“.

Truth be told, the first paragraph of the first VentureBeat story was quick to qualify: “Gartner says that by 2015, more than 50 percent of companies that manage innovation will gamify that process”. Indeed, a quick parallel read to the press release reveals that the story stuck slavishly to its wording. It also reveals that both news story and press release say exactly nothing about how Gartner arrived at that estimate – a survey among CIOs? An expert Delphi? A wet thumb in the wind? All there is is a number of paywalled white papers and some contact information. So I called and mailed the provided contacts (like a journalist would), to enquire how Gartner calculated the provided estimate. The result: A friendly exchange with the kind Gartner Research Engagement Service team, and a pending call with the responsible analyst (see update below*). So in this weird, parallel universe, there is a press release by a research company making the claim (without providing backup) that companies who manage innovation processes will gamify those processes by 2015.

Yet over here, in our world, what was reported, retweeted, and likely committed to memory was “50% of companies will gamify by 2015, see Gartner” – as evidenced by VentureBeat misremembering/misrepresenting its own news story from several weeks before. Now back in the days at journalism school, I learned that “journalism” meant to select stories that were of public interest, and to present the facts in a neutral and nuanced way. To give critical scrutiny to any information presented, to be wary of the interests of the party providing it, to balance a position by giving voice to the opposition, and to contextualize the story in a bigger picture, such that the reader might be able to form her own critical opinion. It was not considered journalism to take a press release and cut away all qualification, context, dissent, or nuance until only the pure, newsworthy, clickable, findable, and false headline remained.

This is not a lament on the death of journalism. Nor a sermon to tech bloggers to part with their AOL Ways. It may be, to a small extent, a rectification of what has happened to Rangaswami’s argument. But mainly, it is just a reminder that in this day and age, if you want to avoid your own thinking to become sloppy, it helps to sometimes step in that parallel universe and watch that whole talk, or read that whole study – because the news media likely did not.

* Update, July 17, 2011
According to the analyst behind the Gartner press release, Brian Burke, the numbers in it are Strategic Planning Assumptions that shall guide their clients in making decisions (more on assumption-based planning, more on the Gartner process). Though Gartner has various methods to generate those assumptions (including client surveys), in this case, Burke gathered the existing evidence (desk research, interviews), and based on that drafted a first version, which was then peer-reviewed by other Gartner analysts before publication.

Update, September 25, 2011: JP Rangaswami has posted a writeup of his “gentle musings about the enterprise and gamification“.

5 thoughts on “A world of sloppy thinking, part 2: Journalism

  1. Thanks Sebastian. It broke my heart a little to see his talk reduced to that headline. I spent time with JP a few days before that talk, and it was of course dead obvious that his presentation was aimed at those wiilling and able to think about the deeper, more subtle issues around work and motivation. You did a wonderful job here of making us *think*, in the way JP intended and counter to that oh-so-retweetqble headline. What surprised me about that is JP spent time before that talk expressing his concerns about the title (and use of the word “gamification”) to the folks at RWW. Sigh.

  2. Criticizing headline construction (with all this frustrated language) is a bit “tempest in a teapot” isn’t it? 🙂

    All media outlets simplify for the sake of making snappy headlines. We can’t expect the fine reporters at RWW or VB to know as much about this subject as you, and expecting them to construct stories the same way you do would be absurd….you’re an academic after all. 🙂

    If you want to make a constructive contribution to their efforts, I highly recommend a tightly worded, polite email to the editor with your suggested clarifications. Edit this down to the sentient points and post it in the comment thread. Knowing the reporters in question as I do, I’m sure they would welcome your feedback.


    PS – Salesforce has been very successful at creating value with classic gamification techniques. In fact, they bought one of the poster children (Jigsaw) last year and have integrated the offering deeply into the suite. I think JP’s very thoughtful, but the corporate income statement is…as they say…what it is. 🙂

    1. Gabe’s right, Sebastian. There’s no value in trying to clarify language or meaning. And in 2011, the best way to affect change in mainstream journalism is through tightly-worded and polite email to editors. 

      Further, as an academic, the value of your knowledge about the field is only diminished when you broadcast it. 

      Just hoping to clarify,

      1. Gabe, Kevin:

        Thanks for the advice, point taken – I’ll write said polite and to the point email next time.

        This was more than anything a reaction to the fact that a lot of people in my circles reacted negatively to JP’s argument, mainly because they simply hadn’t encountered it, but only the RWW story since they shied away from 45 minutes of video – so I felt the best way to address that was to provide a searchable/readable/browseable write-up, rather than a comment at the story.

        I’m aware that style and length of that are anything but news-worthy, but my critique was less about snappy headlines than a misportrayal/missing ‘due diligence’ in the actual body of the respective story; both would not have required more text. In that sense, I would stand by my point that reading beyond the news media helps you stay sharp on your topic – a commonplace, for sure, but triggered by the same sentiment voiced by Kathy. Then again, I grant that this was maybe not the best-chosen channel for such sentimental reactions; I was worried about that but want for a better one (e.g. personal random ramblings blog).

        Best, Sebastian

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