Beneath the Hood of Twin Trends

The tools for managing talent are taking on the flavor of a video game.

Increasingly, HR software systems incorporate sophisticated data analysis — the sort of scorekeeping and dashboards that help companies make smarter business decisions. At the same time, people management technology and processes are being turned into games that tap the promise of play to engage workers more fully. This set of articles explores the twin, emerging trends of analytics and gamification.

Workforce Analytics Has Finally Arrived

Recent advances in analytics technology have made it possible to easily obtain workforce data and generate answers to vital questions in real time.

Workforce analytics promises to answer all of the human capital questions that have confounded companies for decades. Do you want to know which employees are at a high risk for leaving? Identify top talent? Determine if your hiring plans are in line with growth goals? All you need to do is analyze the data.

There’s just one problem. A lot of people are talking about how great workforce analytics technology is, but not many — particularly HR people — really understand how to use it.

Yvette Cameron, a research director at technology research company Gartner, said the company’s 2013 Hype Cycle report shows that workforce analytics is at the “peak of inflated expectations. Every day we see more inquiries about workforce analytics, but a lot of HR owners are still using spreadsheets.”

That increase in interest is promising because it suggests that executives are getting a better understanding of the value of analytics. “These tools measure the impact of workforce investments on the business, and the C-suite is very interested in that,” Cameron said.

The technology has also improved dramatically, making it possible for companies to get answers in seconds to questions that used to be impossible to answer.

Data Drives Decision-Making

Howden, a global industrial engineering firm, is one of those companies. As part of a workforce planning initiative, the Glasgow, Scotland-based company rolled out Softscape (now owned by SumTotal Systems Inc.) to get a better handle on how workforce decisions were affecting the business.

“We approached it from a business strategy perspective,” said David Tough, Howden’s global HR operations manager. He worked with heads of IT and finance to identify the key business challenges they anticipated during the next five years, then used the analytics technology to research those issues.

The biggest concerns related to sourcing engineering talent and knowledge transfer from key people on the verge of retiring, he said. So his team analyzed the current engineering group, slicing data based on compensation, title, location, tenure and training, then used that data to make hiring predictions and track career development and completion of training programs.

“The technology has done a lot of what we hoped it would,” Tough said. His team has been able to identify key engineering skill gaps in specific regions, and to target locations where top talent is likely to retire to establish formal knowledge transfer programs. “We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what we can do.”

Amy Wilson, vice president of human capital management product strategy for Workday, a software as a service provider, said the promise of analytics is starting to come to fruition. “Leadership has always wanted these workforce insights,” she said, but until recently access to data has been so limited that HR couldn’t use it to provide meaningful answers.?

That’s beginning to change. Recent advances in analytics technology have made it possible to easily obtain workforce data and generate answers to vital questions in real time.

At the heart of this evolution is “in memory” technology, which gives big data systems cheap, flexible storage capacity to house and access millions of pieces of data on the fly, said Dave Weisbeck, chief strategy officer for Visier, a workforce analytics software company. “Workforce questions that used to be too big and expensive to figure out can now be answered in milliseconds,” he said.

Many core human resources information systems, or HRIS, and enterprise resource planning, or ERP, systems as well as stand-alone vendors now offer advanced data analytics options.

HRIS providers, including SuccessFactors, SilkRoad and Saba Software, were early adopters of social analytics as part of their core systems to better predict the impact of workforce trends on the business, Cameron said. Social analytics tools allow companies to gather relevant data from social media channels to make better business decisions.

And IBM’s acquisition of Kenexa positions the software giant to harness the power of data analytics from the recruiting and talent management world to help companies make better workforce management choices.

More recently, SumTotal’s new elixHR platform lets users link disparate HR databases with external systems and information to conduct more comprehensive employee analytics. And Visier has gained attention for its easy-to-use analytics interface and ability to integrate with other HRIS and ERP systems.

Workday is also getting into the workforce analytics game, with the impending launch of Workday Big Data Analytics, which promises to manage and analyze data from multiple data sources to identify workforce trends.

Cameron, though, warns that not all systems are equal. Many vendors talk about big data analytics, but they may only be referring to large volumes of data from a small number of sources, she said. “You need a large variety of data to get the ‘aha’ moments.”

That variety may include traditional HR data, along with sales, compensation and expansion goals; employee-specific social media data; and industry benchmarking from third-party sources.

Don’t Panic

Companies should also think about their own internal data analysis skills and the big questions they want to answer. “For many companies, it’s hard enough to get their arms around basic issues like the turnover rate,” Cameron said. “It can be overwhelming to think more broadly about what to do with all that data.”

Before choosing a system, work with leaders across the business to set strategic goals for workforce analytics and define the questions you want to ask, experts suggest. And don’t get overwhelmed by the breadth of data that you’ll suddenly have access to, Cameron said. “The only way to understand how this technology can impact your business is to just start working with it to see what it can do.”

Gamification Is Hard Work

Good gamification will engage and motivate employees, but most efforts fail to hit the mark.

Gamification promises to turn even the most laborious management activities into fun and competitive assignments that employees actually want to participate in.

Gamification is the process of using game design applications to make situations more fun and engaging, often using point systems, leader boards and awards that allow people to track each other’s progress. Turning work into play isn’t simple, and the efforts often fall short. In many cases, however, gamification is having a phenomenal effect.

Consider SAIF, a nonprofit workers’ compensation insurance organization in Portland, Ore. For years, safety, risk and wellness coordinator Renae Coombs had been trying to get employees to participate in its wellness program, but she could never get more than 30 percent of employees to take part until she added gamification to the mix.

In 2011, Coombs’ team implemented Virgin Pulse, which rewards people with points and prizes for walking. Those who sign up get a digital pedometer that they wear all day.? The device stores the number of steps they take for up to two weeks at a time, and users can plug the pedometer into their computer to update their score.

“They get 20 points if they walk less than 7,000 steps per day, and 60 to 100 points for more than 7,000,” she said. They also earn extra points for speed while walking, and when they update more frequently. When they achieve a certain number, they rise to the next level and receive rewards.

The program was instantly successful, Coombs said. By the end of the first year, 75 percent of the company’s 840 employees had joined, and today that number is at 97 percent.

“It happened by social contagion,” she said. “People talked each other into signing up, and they are constantly comparing steps and talking in the Virgin Pulse language.”

Don’t Let the Name Fool You

This is exactly the kind of gamification model that works, because it’s simple, fun and drives the right kind of behavior, said Brian Burke, a research vice president following gamification trends for Gartner Group. “Gamification is not about entertainment. It’s about motivating people to achieve goals,” he said.

This is where many companies make mistakes. Gamification can be a great tool for HR leaders who want to capture employees’ attention. But if they are just doing it to make HR more fun, or they start giving people points that have no purpose, it will fall apart.

“A lot of companies implement gamification applications because of the hype, but they don’t have clarity around their business objectives,” Burke said. And that is why so many of them will fail — Gartner predicts that in 2014, 80 percent of gamification applications will not meet their objectives due to poor design.

Daniel Debow, senior vice president at, learned this lesson the hard way. Debow was co-founder of Rypple, an enterprise social media platform that takes a game-centric approach to employee performance management that was purchased by Salesforce in 2012.

When his team was getting ready to launch Rypple, they saw that the online storage service Dropbox had a lot of success offering free additional storage in exchange for getting friends to sign up — a classic example of a gamification reward system. So they tried to do the same thing with Rypple. But instead of storage, they offered cash rewards in exchange for getting friends to sign up. It was a bust.

“We found people were actually less likely to introduce Rypple to a friend than if we just sent them a general prompt,” he said. It turned out that offering cash in exchange for colleague introductions makes people uncomfortable. “It’s all about the context.”

They quickly canceled the cash reward program, but didn’t give up on gamification. In fact, one of the most talked about features in Rypple — now known as — is the ability to give colleagues custom-made badges to recognize success or good teamwork. This kind of personalized creative reward system is an intrinsic part of good gamification, he said. “It acknowledges people for the right behaviors.”

Burke said the lesson is to be thoughtful in your approach to gamification. “The goal is to make people more efficient in their jobs by engaging and motivating them.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. She can be reached at