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All Work and All Play: Can Business Be Both?

by Joshua Greenbaum | insiderPROFILES

July 1, 2011

Could gaming and business marry and live happily ever after? As online games like Angry Birds and FarmVille infiltrate the business culture, money is being invested in making business more game-like. This article takes a critical look at the concept of bringing gaming technology to the enterprise and how SAP can use games to incentivize collective, collaborative action.

Could the Marriage of Business and Gaming Revolutionize Enterprise Software?

Five years ago, impressed with SAP’s new focus on business processes, I wrote a column about what was, at the time, a completely far-fetched idea: What if SAP could tout its business process expertise not in an endless series of Microsoft PowerPoint presentations and process maps, but in an online game?1 Imagine a blend of SimCity and SAP software, of serious business process mastery and online gaming fun. The catalyst for that column was a sense that understanding the value and function of business processes isn’t always intuitive, and visualizing how a business process works and how it could affect a business is even less intuitive.

While the notion of combining enterprise software and gaming seemed crazy at the time, five years later, the marriage of software and gaming isn’t just some whimsical idea floating around an industry analyst’s fevered brain. An entire army of likeminded venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and software developers is now working on the general concept of bringing gaming technology to the enterprise. Whether you call it “gamification,” “serious games,” or “the game layer,” considerable time, effort, and — most importantly in our entrepreneurial culture — money is being invested in making games more business-like, and business more game-like. But why? Let’s take a critical look at this phenomenon.

Online Gaming Infiltrates the Business Culture

The idea that games and business could marry and live happily ever after, while pretty darn radical on the face of it, turns out to be even more subversive when one accounts for the fact that games present the button-down business world with a huge cultural dilemma in the form of a three-letter word: fun. It’s inherent in the very word “work” that fun isn’t what we were put on Earth to have during our working hours. According to the intellectual and philosophical forebears of our business culture, fun is supposed to be the antithesis of work — the thing we are only allowed to do once the work day is over.

However, the increasing consumerization of IT has meant that a new, younger generation of employees is entering the workforce — and these workers expect their IT user experiences to be similar to their consumer experiences, where simplicity and fun are two of the dominant design criteria. For example, the emergent workforce is also the Facebook generation, and it’s no surprise that its members take games and gaming experiences for granted.

Before you jump to the conclusion that the enterprise is now being forced to kowtow to a bunch of adolescent game-boys, understand that gaming culture is no longer synonymous with youth culture. We know from casual observation that games like Angry Birds and FarmVille are played by all demographics, from teenagers to adult men and women, including business professionals. What is less known is that the executive suite is playing online games too: According to a recent survey, 61% of C-level executives are playing online games at work.2 No, this doesn’t mean these execs are slacking off in the office — it simply confirms that online gaming technology has become a pervasive part of our business culture.

The Merging of Business and Gaming Comes Just in Time

This transition couldn’t come at a better time for the enterprise, where higher levels of online activity are increasingly needed for business success. Despite the buzz and hype about collaborative online communities, the rates of active, attentive participation are actually relatively low. After all, most online users “lurk,” check a couple of things, and leave. Collective, collaborative action is the exception, not the rule. And that’s fine if you are a site like Google, which sells based on page views and doesn’t need any form of participation beyond a single mouse click. But if you need people to actually do something more active on your site — especially if you are trying to enable collaborative action on the part of people with little or no inherent reason to collaborate — low engagement rates mean low success for the goods and services you are trying to sell or enable on your site.

This is true in the consumer world, and it’s perhaps even more of a problem in the enterprise, where, before you can even sell goods and services to the outside world, you need to get your employees to work in a harmonious, synchronized, collaborative way. It turns out that getting people to work well together, and both incentivizing and rewarding them for working well together, has become the multibillion-dollar question of the Web 2.0 era.

How Can SAP Use Games to Incentivize Collective, Collaborative Action?

If you’re SAP, this question of engagement has two direct impacts. The first is that SAP’s goal of reaching one billion customers in the coming years will require very high levels of engagement in order to be realized. The hidden imperative behind the “billion points of light” strategy is deep and meaningful collaboration — that is, active participation in business processes and tasks by many more business workers than SAP has traditionally been able to connect to. SAP will have to provide incentives and other mechanisms inside its software to ensure that active, collaborative internal participation in business processes is the norm, not the exception that it is today.

The second imperative for SAP is that its customers’ customers will also be living and transacting business in this collaborative environment, and that means they will be expecting a user experience — as provided by SAP software — that ensures that active, collaborative external participation is the norm as well.

That’s where gamification can play a huge role. Games provide incentives for collaboration that entice and reward people for hard work — work that, because it’s fun and rewarding, becomes compelling and engaging. The simple act of adding gaming elements, like rewards and bonus points and a little competition, to existing business processes and community-based activities can make user engagement and passion a given. Online games like World of Warcraft aren’t just fun, they’re work, and the 7 million “person-years” gamers have spent playing World of Warcraft since its inception provide a model of user engagement that SAP and its ecosystem can use in the more button-down business world of the enterprise.

If you want a peek at how games and the enterprise can come together, go to SAP partner Crowdcast’s website ( and see what a little gamification can do to an enterprise process such as forecasting. Crowdcast has turned the process of gathering accurate forecasting information into a game in which stakeholders place bets and compete to see who has the most accurate forecast. Crowdcast is one of a growing number of examples of this phenomenon. And while full-blown “SimCity SAP” isn’t necessarily in the works, don’t be surprised if, in the very near future, your SAP environment becomes more and more game-like, more and more engaging, and — gasp — more and more fun. Imagine that.

1 See “SimEnterprise: The Video Gamer’s Guide to SAP’s Business-Process Revolution” in Volume 2, Issue 2, of SAP NetWeaver Magazine ( [back]

2 See Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal (Penguin Press, 2011). [back]

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