Happy New Year, everyone. As I customarily do, I'm looking back on 2011 with an eye toward emerging trends that bear watching. In the latter half of last year, I started to receive a lot of questions from content & collaboration professionals and journalists regarding gamification. The fuel for this undoubtedly comes from businesses' burgeoning love affair with gaming dynamics in consumer web marketing efforts (chronicled by Forrester here, here, here, and here). The questions I get, though, are from individuals looking to understand if gamification has business uses outside of enticing consumers to engage more deeply with the company.

As an analyst who has covered serious gaming (the use of games and gaming dynamics to teach, change attitudes and behaviors, and inspire action) for five years, these inquiries bring a smile to my face. As you may guess, my answer to these interested parties is, "Of course you can use gamification to enhance other processes in your business." My confidence in gamification's utility to internal business processes comes from the fact that, at its core, this is an old idea in business. You might have just said "huh?" Permit me a moment to explain.

Gamification is the use of components of games — e.g., status, leaderboards, currency, and badges — to accelerate or enhance things that aren't games. If we accept this definition, then we've been gamifying various business processes for a long time now. Look in your sales department — that's been gamified for years through competitions replete with leaderboards and trips, money, and prizes for top performers. What makes gamification seem so new and different is a group of vendors have emerged to automate these gaming elements, providing APIs which can integrate these tools into a range of business applications, thus making it easier to gamify other business processes.

The automation of gaming elements springs from the serious gaming industry. For three decades, the US Army (along with other government entities and NGOs) has contracted with gaming vendors to build simulations for training and education. The companies that produced these games, like Virtual Heroes, took their expertise here to build games for businesses to help employee training and team building, as well as creating games to support external marketing efforts (this history is detailed in our first serious gaming report). Some thinkers within the industry, however, saw that the real value of serious games to business leaders was not in the games, but, as Indiana University's Edward Castranova noted, in taking elements of games and applying them to "jobs with high turnover, such as call centers, to lower attrition with the introduction of fun competition and encourage high performance."

This brings us back to the initial question: "Where does gamification make sense inside the business?" Mr. Castranova was onto something as contact center outsourcer LiveOps leveraged gamification technology from Bunchball to enhance employee training, improving customer satisfaction and Net Promoter Scores. But there are other areas: For example, we profiled Microsoft's successful use of a gaming interface on top of their bug-testing engine and Colgate-Palmolive's use of a gaming tool to run ideation sessions. And social vendors like NewsGator and Jive are adding gaming elements or partnering with gamification vendors to add these elements to their offerings to boost end user adoption.

But now comes the word of caution. Just because we've identified areas where gaming technology can help some internal processes doesn't mean they're suited for every business process. The time we spent studying the Microsoft case revealed that gaming tactics are most successful in two scenarios: encouraging employees to expand their skill sets within their jobs (e.g., training) and getting workers to use the skills they have to do things outside of their role (e.g., helping the company test software). Many information workers may not respond well if competition, badges, status, and other gaming elements are layered onto their jobs because their motivations are different than their colleagues in the contact center or in the sales department.

So, the bottom line is that gamification can help your business internally. However, using these techniques successfully requires that you understand the things that motivate employees and ensure that introducing gaming dynamics support and enhance those motivators instead of being demotivational elements within an employee's workflow.