August 2014
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Boost Basic Job Skills Training

Friday, August 8, 2014
Boost Basic Job Skills Training

Use gamification to turn "boring" programs into fun ways to learn foundational skills.

It's easy to assume everyone consistently applies basic skills. But what if they don't? What if employees aren't equally skilled in these areas? What would the cumulative impact be on your business if thousands of employees weren't doing the right things?

Still, almost everyone groans when you mention basic job skills training. That's not a good sign when you're looking to successfully deliver the training program and document its impact on the job.

Whether it's conflict resolution skills, using safe lifting techniques, or greeting customers properly when they enter the store, foundational skills are critical to every job.

When you gamify basic skills training, learners no longer will call the program boring or say "I don't need it." Instead, you will hear, "It was fun and I already learned something," "I liked the puzzles at the end," and "Last night I went home and looked through the materials so I was prepared."

Enter gamification

At its simplest, gamification is the process of making nongame activities more fun and engaging. Karl Kapp, a respected expert on the convergence of learning and technology, defines gamification as "a careful and considered application of game thinking to solving problems and encouraging learning using all the elements of games that are appropriate."

Gamification uses all of the best features of games that bring out personal attributes—such as our natural desire for competition, achievement, status, self-expression, altruism, and closure—without building an end-to-end learning game. People participate in learning activities that include game elements such as earning points, overcoming a challenge, or receiving badges for accomplishing tasks, but without the rigid start-stop, win-lose structure of a traditional game.

Existing training content can be adapted to a gamified environment to make it fresh, inspiring, and enjoyable by using a wide variety of game elements and techniques based on brain science research. Gamification also is used often to engage people in learning when and where it's convenient; information often is distributed over a long time period and not meant to be learned in one setting.

With its fun and challenging approach, gamification is particularly well suited to training programs with subject matter that is not that engaging, or where learner resistance is high. Kapp has said that gamification is perfect for basic skills that require reinforcement over time, and that need to be "front of mind" for employees. Here are five reasons why gamification should appeal to training and development professionals.

People of all ages love games. In fact, 67 percent of American households play computer or video games. According to the Entertainment Software Rating Board, 26 percent of those are older than 50 years old, but it's the 74 percent younger than 50 who are moving into the workforce with their strong preference for games.

Gamification improves engagement. As an enjoyable activity that mimics people's preferred entertainment, gamified learning is an approach that people readily embrace. Because it's fun, it creates less resistance to learning, and is also less stressful than traditional learning with lectures and formal tests.

Gamification enhances traditional training techniques. Gamified learning is particularly strong in helping to improve the retention of learning through techniques such as repetition, association, elaboration, and stories. But it's equally as strong in boosting behavior-based learning, where the goal is to shift employee attitudes, values, and beliefs.

Gamified learning is suited to a diverse workforce. Game elements allow you to create learning that is attractive to all your employees, whether it's to accommodate various cultural groups, different languages, or even different generations.

Gamification is becoming ubiquitous. With recent technology advances, gamification now can be readily added to existing training environments. Learning can be added to gamification platforms being used for customer loyalty, employee onboarding, or innovation development; added to existing learning management systems; or available as cloud-based subscription services—which make gamification cost-effective and easy to develop and deploy.

Cognitive skills

Gamification can be used to teach and improve a range of cognitive skills, including knowledge retention, problem solving, decision making, risk taking, and even leadership. There are many techniques for improving knowledge retention, including:

  • elaborating—linking new information with prior information
  • organizing, sorting, and matching information, all of which help learners improve conceptual knowledge
  • associating—linking a word, term, or image to its definition
  • repeating content, which is proved to improve knowledge retained over the long term
  • using stories, for which our brains have a natural affinity
  • replaying
  • testing with trivia.

Capital BlueCross in Pennsylvania implemented a gamified learning environment to improve its training, and keep it fresh and interesting. The nature of health insurance—with its complex policies and procedures, and frequent changes in regulation—means that companies are challenged as employees experience training burnout and become resistant to additional training. Capital BlueCross found gamification to make an incredible impact on its culture.
"For the first time ever, our employees are talking about procedures and processes in a manner that is casual, natural, and organic," says Mike Keeler, vice president of operations. "What was even more surprising to us was the noticeable improvement in mood and morale. Everyone was smiling, laughing, and talking about the testing."

Attitudes, values, and beliefs

The affective domain deals with attitudes, values, beliefs, interest, and emotions, which can be affected by gamified learning that focuses on the desired changes—whether that's changing attitudes about safety or improving customer experience.

Some of the gamification techniques that can help improve attitudes and values include:

  • encouraging participation by creating a fun experience
  • tapping into the learner's intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, such as tangible rewards, peer recognition, and self-efficacy (belief in one's ability)
  • creating immersive learning experiences, where the goal of the game is to perform the task that you have identified as the outcome of the learning (for instance, dealing with an accident at work)
  • focusing on inspirational activities and events, and showing that success is possible.

Pep Boys implemented gamified learning as a way to not only educate associates about the ramifications of retail theft, but also to convince them to become stewards charged with protecting the organization from theft. According to Bryan Hoppe, vice president of store operations, "In just a few minutes a day, associates learn and are reminded of the right thing to do, which has had a dramatic impact on our bottom line. We know because we measured it."

Psychomotor skills

Psychomotor skills include physical movement, coordination, and use of the motor-skill areas, which require practice and are measured in terms of speed, precision, distance, procedures, or techniques in execution.

Gamification can be a contributor in improving skills and knowledge in the psychomotor domain by using these techniques:

  • knowledge—identifying the steps involved in a particular skill, and establishing standards for mastery of the skill
  • observation—presenting videos that show the skill being performed properly
  • demonstration—demonstrating an automated sequence the learner moves through as each element of the skill. Even if the learner can't physically touch the machinery, the positioning and function of knobs, switches, and displays can be learned.

Using a gamified learning environment to improve knowledge of safety and use of safe equipment practices in the warehouse, Walmart Logistics has seen pretty dramatic results. According to Ken Woodlin, vice president of compliance, safety, and asset protection, "When we experienced a 54 percent decrease in safety incidents in the pilot implementation, we knew we had a winner. Over the past three years, metrics like lost time have been reduced by more than 50 percent, and incident rates and DART [days away, restricted, or transferred] rates are now well below average."

Gamification best practices

Convinced that gamification can benefit your organization? Before getting started, here are some best practices to consider.

Focus on critical skills. Rather than creating all-encompassing soft skills training, identify the top eight or so basic skills that are critical to each role inside your organization, and their desired knowledge and performance levels. Test knowledge and application across these skills sets to establish the gaps, and deliver training to fill these gaps. Continue testing and delivering training to fill knowledge gaps, while measuring the effects of knowledge, skill, and attitude on job performance.

Employ scientifically proven delivery methods. Gamified learning works particularly well with new learning techniques based on significant findings in cognitive science research.

The spacing effect—or interval reinforcement—is a technique that allows for continuous learning, which is delivered in short, daily bursts of learning. It often is done in a work setting rather than a classroom. In addition to keeping critical information top of mind, this technique gives you the ability to reinforce classroom or learning management system training, and increase knowledge retention over time.

Retrieval practice is an extremely powerful learning technique. A learner is provided with a concept and is immediately tested on recall. The knowledge is quickly refreshed, and the learner is again tested on recall.


It's proved to produce learning superior to other methods of studying, such as cramming or concept mapping. And when wrapped in a gamified learning environment, employees don't even realize that it's a formal testing process, which greatly reduces the stress factor for many people.

Personalize the learning. Nothing engages learners more than a training program that directly meets their learning needs and interests. Personalization considers:

  • the learner's preferred and habitual mode of learning
  • the learner's current state of knowledge: What specific knowledge, skills, and attitudes are required, and where are the gaps? What learning can be skipped, and what needs to be repeated?
  • the learner's generation and preferred game styles
  • cultural or language considerations that can improve learning engagement
  • regional, departmental, or team dynamics that may affect attitudes and training requirements.

Leverage multiple incentives for participation. To ensure that learning motivation remains high, it's important to incorporate as many relevant incentives as possible. Personal and team leaderboards drive competitiveness and social connectedness, which creates a strong sense of community. Tangible rewards, such as gift cards or company merchandise, dramatically drive usage and enhance the overall learning experience.

"In our gamified learning implementation, we're experiencing over 90 percent voluntary participation for those pockets of learners with achievable tangible rewards. That contrasts to 40 percent voluntary participation when learners do not yet have tangible rewards in place," says JD Dillon of the Kaplan Higher Education Group.

Integrate learning into each workday. Gamified learning is ideally suited to deliver learning in short, effective bursts each day. It allows you to take advantage of the knowledge retention power of the spacing effect, while keeping job disruption to a minimum. Plus, consistent exposure to information keeps it top of mind and part of the ongoing conversation, which can be critical for knowledge such as safety procedures or customer service practices. Gamified learning can be effective in doses of anything from 60 seconds to 60 minutes per day.

"With our learning system providing daily learning and feedback, safety has become deeply embedded in our associates' business life and belief systems," says Woodlin. "We've seen dramatic results in incident and cost reductions, and our associates are discussing safety and contributing their own ideas."

Basic job skills training doesn't need to be boring or avoided. With the inclusion of fun game elements, incentives to motivate, and techniques based on solid scientific research, basic skills training can become a welcome addition to your employee training program.

Gamification and Learning

Learning professionals must understand the growing trend of applying game-based sensibilities to the development of instruction through creating time-based activities, leveling up of learning experiences, storytelling, avatars, and other techniques. All elements of games need to be brought to bear intelligently and carefully.

The growing use of avatars, the increasing popularity of massively multiplayer online role-play games, and the addition of point systems, badges, and leaderboards in realms such as economics, retail sales, and finance are leading to a proliferation of gamified collaborative and learning techniques. This is not a waning trend; rather it is gaining momentum and acceptance in more and more fields. Learning and development professionals must follow that trend or be left behind. This is especially true when applied to areas not typically thought of as material appropriate for “games.”

This is also crucial because traditional methods of learning are losing favor, most page-turning e-learning modules are boring people who have grown up playing video games for an average of 12 years. Time and attention of learners is limited, and learning professionals must focus on providing an engaging and goal-oriented solution to the training and teaching dilemma. A focus on gamification increases engagement, relevance, and immersion and assists with the transfer of learning to the actual situation.

Learning professionals will be called upon to match different game strategies with different types of learning content to create the right learning outcome. College faculty, learning professionals, and others in the field of learning and education must gain knowledge of how gamification techniques can be used in a variety of settings to improve learning, retention, and application of knowledge. Learning and development professionals are in a unique position to seize the opportunity to create interactive experiences for employees using gamification.

Excerpted from The Gamification of Learning and Instruction by Karl M. Kapp (Pfeiffer/ASTD Press).


About the Author

Carol Leaman is CEO of Axonify, an innovator in the corporate learning space. She is a sought-after speaker, presenting at high-profile events such as the Fortune BrainstormTech conference in Aspen, Colorado; HR Summit 2012 Impact99 conferences in Vancouver and Toronto, Canada; and TedxWomen in Waterloo, Canada.

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