Online Games: Ready For Prime Time Leadership Development?

World of Warcraft
The May issue of Harvard Business Review is now off the shelves but the cover story, entitled, “Leadership’s Online Labs,” by Bryon Reeves, Thomas Malone and Tony O-Driscoll has become a buzz among Chief Talent Officers and Chief Learning Officers.

If you are like me and did not grow up playing multiplayer online games also known as MMORPG’s (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) it is important to give you some context. Multiplayer online games are a large and growing market with current estimates topping 50 million users. World of Warcraft alone has 10 million players who each pay a subscription fee of $15 a month. According to the Palo Alto Research Center, participants’ play an average of 20 hours a week, their average age is 27 years old and 85% are male. They are not exactly your typical corporate employee, but the question is this: What can we learn from how these virtual teams form to solve a problem and then disband?

Questions about what the participants do when they play these games has caught the interest of corporate talent and learning officers. Essentially, they are facing the same organizational challenges as many of our leaders in today’s FORTUNE 500 firm, namely they are:

• In constant recruitment mode
• Experimenting with being creative about motivating and rewarding top talent
• Using the latest collaborative tools so global teams can be constantly connected to each other
• Incorporating more personalization into day-to-day interactions with team players

So, if we believe these online games are a preview for what leaders will be facing in the next few years, what can we learn about what works? Here are some lessons and observations from Leadership’s Online Labs article:

  1. Think first about how to change the game rather than solely focusing on “building individual leadership competencies.” Two suggestions: First think about offering immediate individual and non-monetary team rewards. This can range from public ratings and ranking systems recognizing stellar individual contributions (think Amazon ratings here) to devising a game-inspired set of incentives where players have visibility into what their reward will be if their team is successful. As the HBR article states, “the power of online games is that people care very much about the virtual gains and losses, even if the currency that records them can’t be exchanged for dollars.” So the processes we set up for documenting individual contributions and allowing these to be rated, commented on and ranked is a very powerful incentive.
  2. Create more detailed views into the profiles of team members as I discussed last week in my article, “Performance Learning 2.0“. The static employee profile used for decades by human resource officers is slowly being replaced by a “personal employee tag cloud” where you can view a snapshot of an employee’s personal and professional life—courses taken, language fluency, projects worked on and work/life goals for next few years. But a note of caution here, employees will ask how this data will be used and companies will need to develop a set of guidelines and policies if they go down this road.

Some questions for you and your teams as you leverage the lessons of online games:

  • What is your Facebook Strategy? This has come to mean do you have a strategy for embedding social media into your learning/talent development offerings? This does not have to also mean losing control or taking risks regarding security. Rather, it implies that your organization is making a commitment to experiment with using social media as a way to become relevant to the Millennial Generation.
  • How much of your Learning & Talent Management staff is from the Millennial Generation? Are you tapping into this mindset as you partner with your customers to design and develop new programs?
  • Are you taking the lead to “educate” your organization’s IT department on how game-inspired processes and incentives may need to be created to attract, develop and retain Millennial Generation. For example, have you created a presentation on social media for learning and shared this with your IT department? Remember IT departments need to be brought along early rather than having Human Resources “come up with a solution and then try selling it to IT.” One way companies are doing this is appointing a Chief Technology Officer for their learning department.
  • Please share your thoughts with our growing community and me.

    [tags]Online games, talent management, Harvard Business Review, Leadership Development, Facebook [/tags]

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About Jeanne Meister

Jeanne C. Meister is a best selling author of three books, internationally recognized consultant and keynote speaker. Jeanne is Partner of Future Workplace, a consulting firm dedicated to assisting organizations in re-thinking, re-imagining and re-inventing the workplace. Jeanne was recently voted by her peers as one of the 20 top influential training professionals in the United States. Jeanne’s name is synonymous with the establishment and institutionalization of global corporate universities. Jeanne is the author of three books, Corporate Quality Universities and Corporate Universities. Jeanne’s latest book is, The 2020 Workplace: How Innovative Companies Attract, Develop & Keep Tomorrow’s Employees Today (Harper Collins, 2010) is in its 10th printing.No information is provided by the author.


  1. I like your connection in this post on how “online games are a preview for what leaders will be facing in the next few years.” Gen Y has grown up in a world where you get 15 bonus points for learning a new move and has learned to always want to beat the highest score. Workplaces will have to get creative in figuring out how to dole out those 15 bonus points in the form of immediate employee recognition, in order to retain top talent and keep employees happy.

  2. For the past several years I’ve heard a lot about internal wiki use and I think it’s a great way to collaborate and share data along with the tag cloud approach. I’m used to moving and thinking so fast, even having to search my own Gmail (which is being used internally at several of the companies I’ve worked for recently) seems slow sometimes. To this end, searching Outlook is simply out of the question…

    I like getting my answers now and instant chat enables this. Games like WOW promote good chatting manners and a certain level of multitasking ability that users then bring to the office. Why search a computer when I can just ask a friend? If I’ve treated that friend well and don’t overwhelm him or her then chatting makes a lot of sense and is less of a bother. Many of the people I work with play WOW and I think it builds competence as a team player and a chatter. The Gmail platform brings searchable email that can be accessed anywhere plus chat, check out Google Apps if you’re a company owner. This is the tool that leading universities and companies use for internal communication: http://www.google.com/a/

    I’m definitely a perennial (1983 birthday) and I’ve worked at a few great startups in Silicon Valley where the latest tools are being tested out in the field including Google – the key to young employee happiness and success in my opinion is freedom, trust, and acceptance of these new mediums and lifestyles. New hires will bring it in with them, you just have to allow it and show them appreciation instead of acting threatened. Imagine coming strait out of school feeling excited and innovative only to be shut down and forced into some archaic system. That’s just counter productive.

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