Revenge of the Gamers!

Smart companies should be playing too

MMORPGs -- massively multiplayer online role-playing games -- like World of Warcraft, Eve and EverQuest may be the best simulators of tomorrow's business environment. So say Byron Reeves, Thomas W. Malone and Tony O'Driscoll in this month's Harvard Business Review. The authors found that these games closely mirror the evolving world of business: distributed decision-making, rapid response, ad hoc teams, and leadership through collaboration rather than authority.

Reeves, the Paul C. Edwards Professor of Communication at Stanford University and a co-founder of Seriosity Inc., a company that develops enterprise software inspired by online games, told Kathleen Melymuka that smart companies should be playing.

Tell me about the Seriosity study commissioned by IBM. They asked us to study collaboration and leadership in these [game] guilds. Moreover, these games are getting popular enough that, even if we don't want to take lessons from them, the people we're hiring are steeped in them, so we need to at least know what's shaping their lives and contributing to their expectations for software when they get to work.

What were some of the study's conclusions? The most interesting one is that leadership in these games has less to do with the special qualities of the person doing the leading than with the environment itself. Tom Malone and I had looked at the leadership literature, and it's very biased toward leadership as a quality of an individual: Leaders are born, and you have to find them and nurture them.

Gamers were saying in many ways just the opposite: A lot of people can be leaders when there's an environment that's conducive to making it happen. Maybe they're not the most socially extroverted communicators; maybe they just know what's going on. A lot of gamers told us, "I could [lead in a game], and it wouldn't happen at IBM."

What can you do with what you learned? A lot of information work is dull and boring, and there are productivity and retention problems that come from that. These games are engaging, compelling and just the opposite. So can we marry the juiciness of these experiences with the productivity needs of business contexts and get people more engaged in their work?

A sales team meeting in World of Warcraft is not the first thing that's going to happen. But when you think about it, it's suggestive of how much fun it could be to be a guild in a game with goals and avatars and synthetic currency systems: I'll give you 10 pieces of gold for that PowerPoint I need tomorrow.

How are game players' challenges similar to those of business leaders? Recruiting, evaluating, retaining, persuading, compensating -- all those things are really the same. If you're a guild leader, you're looking for new players; you're looking for the best before you "hire" them; you need to figure out what they want and compensate them in the right way to keep them. And "I know we need 30 players on this raid, but [I] have to go put the kids to bed" -- how do you deal with that?

And in today's work environments, so much is about persuading people to help you rather than having authority over them. Exactly. Decentralized work really means that coordinating people is much more important than commanding them.

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