Axonify aims to shake up employee training with micro learning & gamification

Employee training is usually a profoundly unhelpful whirlwind. It’s a day or two stuffed full of information, most of which gets partially (if not completely) forgotten by the second or third week of the #grind.

It’s not that employers don’t try. I’m sure they do their level-best to make training helpful. After all, training and on-boarding employees is expensive, and high turnover rates and under-utilized employees are bad for business. But employee training is still begging for disruption. That’s exactly what Axonify aims to do.

More than just an employee training platform, clould-based software Axonify aims to be an employee knowledge system that’s available for teaching, reference tracking and improvement every day that an employee’s on the job. Using adaptive and micro learning principles, paired with ramification and on-demand knowledge centers, Axonify’s employee knowledge platform is a serious departure from the training systems that are in place at most companies today.

Axonify’s approach was born of the simple realization that human beings aren’t capable of effectively acquiring large volumes of knowledge in one long event,” says Carol Leaman, CEO of Axonify. “Attention spans are short and getting shorter.  We’re stressed and distracted.  We also have very individual and specific  information needs.”

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that we’re not great a focusing. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and a hundred other sources of #content demand our attention hourly. And it doesn’t help that we check our email on average 77 times per day. We’re bombarded by information constantly, and when it’s more than a few sentences, we’re not great at filing it away for future use.

Our brains are really good at digesting 4 to 5 new pieces of information at a time and moving them from short to long-term memory,” says Leaman. “It turns out we’re easily overwhelmed, and too much content literally goes ‘in one ear and out the other’. It also turns out that in order to hone that knowledge, we need to actively recall the information periodically over 30 – 45 days.”

That’s where the micro learning aspect of Axonify comes in. Information specific to an employees position within a company is doled out in small, digestible segments. Sessions don’t last hours, but minutes, and gamifies the learning process with points and leader boards.

“Employees spend about 3 to 5 minutes per day on the platform receiving content in a micro learning format,” says Leaman. “Through understanding leading edge brain-based research in the areas of memory and retention, we designed the experience to create the most optimal scenario for knowledge acquisition that delivers targeted information, person by person, based on what they know, or don’t know, every single day. The proprietary algorithm we’ve developed allows us to personalize learning according to individual needs, strengths and weaknesses.”

Employees voluntarily engaging with content that makes them better at their jobs is a powerful thing. But what kind of knowledge and content are we talking about?

Right now, Axonify’s being used by companies like Walmart, Toyota, Bloomingdale’s and John Hancock. All wildly different companies in vastly different industries. Customer service, sales and product knowledge are obvious bets for the Axonify platform, but a vital piece of the employee knowledge is one that companies can’t afford to overlook: safety.

“Walmart is using Axonify across its more than 75,000 distribution centre associates to keep them safe on the job,” says Leaman. “OSHA reportable incidents dropped by 54% in the first six months. The amount of money saved was incredible.”

Axonify goes a bit further than just training, though. Understanding that question don’t always crop up at convenient times and aren’t always answered by bite-sized morsels of information, Axonify is rolling out Discovery Zone, which provides easily-accessible reference material.

“It’s a place where employees can easily find whatever they need to do their jobs in 2 clicks and 10 seconds,” says Leaman. “With so much information in most corporate archives, employees can’t find anything quickly. They need to have information at their fingertips, on-demand, instantly.”

Shaking up the way that employers and employees interact as they circle around important on-the-job information is a tall order, to be sure. Companies, particularly large ones, are notoriously slow to adopt new technology. That said, with large companies already on board, there’s an obvious benefit to shirking the old training system and plugging into the next generation of delivering employee knowledge.

“Employees feel the intrinsic benefit of being smarter, and they appreciate being given the opportunity to learn constantly, quickly, specifically and when they have a few spare minutes,” says Leaman. “All this translates into higher employee engagement that benefits the business as a whole.”

The gamification is on

Gamification has broken through to mainstream coverage and threatens future ubiquity.
This week saw a slew of stories on the trend. An ABC News roundup covered applications ranging from health to finance and dating. Of course it’s not just consumers who are targeted with the technology, as employees are coaxed to better performance through an increasing number of applications as well.
The Guardian offered a sampling of gamification apps used by charities, including games designed to create empathy and increase awareness for the plight of youth the streets or in developing countries, reward abstinence in recovering alcoholics or pitch in with crowdsourcing on cancer research.
The principles have long been understood
The principles of gamification have been applied for millennia in education, where simple rewards, peer recognition, and ladders of achievement have long held sway. Recognition has motored groups from Weight Watchers to Alcoholics Anonymous and the Shriners. Top sales people have likewise been rewarded by more than straight cash commissions. And marketers have similarly used gamification incentives, such as to sell candy bars and get Violet Beauregarde and Augustus Gloop into the Chocolate Factory.
Gamification at work
Sales, marketing and customer support might be the most obvious applications for the automation of gamification, as the consumerization of the workforce continues to gain ground. But employees are prime candidates for behavior modification in a host of areas.  WestJet was recently profiled for its impending application of gamification to ERP in four areas of expense reporting:

  • timely submission of expense reports,
  • timely approval or rejection of reports,
  • the attachment of receipts to expense reports, and
  • the use of corporate, rather than personal, credit cards.

Further ERP applications, from the supply chain to the factory floor are inevitable. The gamification of hiring is likely to gain pace as well. While this may be good news for job candidates who’d like to punch through the limits of their traditional resume, it could also be seen as a growing burden for those asked to do more for consideration in a competitive hiring market.
Social media
Social media applications for customer support and online forums are among the earliest widespread uses for gamification. Rewards including badges, trusted reviewer, and moderator status have been thoroughly tested, and both virtual and real prizes clearly drive participant behavior in guidable directions. Providers like Gigya and Badgeville continue to find ways to steer users to crank out reviews, post more comments, join more live events, and the like.
More experimentation
More refinement of gamification techniques is inevitable in the workplace, too, as the technology is more widely applied. Already, it is clear that various personality types respond differently to the recognition of status and to various rewards. Great engineers, sales people and customer service reps all tend to have different motivations. For example, as we have seen with consumers, some people volunteer for punishments. (E.g., Pact users have cash on the line if they falter in their diet or exercise regimens.) But in the workplace, will such discipline and punishment always be voluntary?
The backlash begins?
Backlash against this incipient ubiquity is inevitable, and in a small way may have already begun. 2048 is a math game recently launched by a teenage developer. Apparently it was something of a phenomenon when in its simplicity it lacked ease of use, sophisticated graphics, and a leaderboard. Once those elements were added, making it adhere more closely to the recognized principles of gamification, interest waned.
The sinister underbelly
Some technologists are already dismayed that the Internet has become a modern version of Bentham’s Panopticon, as foretold and warned against in Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish”, providing surveillance at a level seldom imagined. Now gamification threatens to make the use of technology, especially at work, a modern version of B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning chamber. Although gamification promises more carrot than stick, we can all expect more mazes, intentionally moved cheese, and the occasional, mild shock.
Just as the cubicle became an icon of corporate conformity in the ‘80s and ‘90s, as an update to the Man in a Grey Flannel Suit, gamification may become a symbol of work in the Twenty-teens and beyond.
Implications for the enterprise
But we have shorter attention spans than previous generations, new entrants to the workforce were reared on computer games, and the science is finding more ways to make repetitive work fun. So enterprise managements and IT departments can look happily toward the positive gains that the technology promises.
A workforce that is satisfied and feels valued is always a competitive advantage, and businesses would do well with combining the broader experience of vendors and users in corporate environments with their own limited, gradual and carefully tested experiments. The close study of psychological literature in the field can help to align game rewards with the intrinsic, deeper satisfaction and purpose that various employees seek.
Still, less will likely prove to be more. Overkill is a real risk in this application, and a spirit of employee involvement in creating, testing, and sometimes ditching new uses is probably in order. For the near term at least, once the sense of playing a game is lost, so, likely, is lost the value of gamification.

A mature enterprise innovator

Network World has posted a great interview with Sean Belka, Senior Vice President and Director of the Fidelity Center for Applied Technology, AKA ‘Fidelity Labs’.

Fidelity has long been an innovator in technology, looking for a proprietary edge on everything from fund manager market information and analytics terminals to 401K delivery services. As such, the company has deep experience in investing for innovation, integrating IT operations with its lines of business, and finding those tasks that are still best centralized.

Among the organizational practices Belka described are the following:

  • While the LOB IT organizations are more focused on internal employee and customer needs, with a fairly immediate timeframe, the Labs pull in more external information, from market analysts to university research partnerships, to take a more experimental, futuristic, and big picture-oriented look at the possible uses and impact of new technology.
  • Although the Labs were looking at technologies such as mobile and social five years ago, they are currently more focused on wearables, artificial intelligence, and gamification.
  • With a staff of 75, the Labs have separate groups dedicated to new technologies, prototypes and development, and geographic innovation ecosystems, among other functions.
  • Fidelity has both enterprise IT and business unit IT, which the Labs will work with variously, depending on the scope of the project involved.

Only very large enterprises have the scale and resources to commit to IT that Fidelity enjoys.

But smaller businesses compete in the same market, and it is incumbent upon IT organizations from the merely large down to the midsized (and, critically, their partners and providers) to find ways for new platforms, technologies and packaged products to enable advanced and adaptable innovation–without incurring prohibitive managerial, tech skill, and resource costs.

There is also accumulated wisdom in how Fidelity organizes its IT to support both regular business operations and various stages of near-term and longer-term innovation and experimentation.

Gamification is baloney

The Pew Internet folks published a report in May on Gamification, and I just encountered it, thanks to someone sending me a link.

I think most of gamification is baloney, which is what I said in their survey, which they distilled in this way:

from The Future of Gamification – Janna Anderson, Lee Rainie – Pew Internet

Cooperation trumps collaboration, gamification is hype, gaming fads come and go and they will not be transformative

Many survey participants remarked that gamification is a “passing fad,” including technology consultant Stowe Boyd, who went on to explain that it is only “of interest to a small segment of the social tools developer community.” Boyd predicted: “In some segments it will have a long-term impact, but only in circumstances where it is integral, and not as a gloss or veneer. Much of what gamification seeks to do—to increase involvement, and foster certain collective behaviors in groups of people—actually runs counter to the fragmentation of user experience online. The rise of apps means that users are spreading their time out over a larger number of more specialized tools, and tool developers try to counter that through inducements to stay, or return frequently, and to align activities with others: a forced viralization. A much more profitable set of ideas? As people are made more autonomous, they naturally move away from collaboration (where users share the same aims and reward systems) toward cooperation (where users do not necessarily share long-term goals or values). Gamification has little use in cooperation, and that is the area of social software that is least realized at this time, and which I predict will be the highest-growth area in the future.”

Supporting my argument, the “#1 gamification company,’ Badgeville, recently launched The Behavior Lab, a “center for excellence” for “behavior management solutions.” The company states that 70% of Fortune 500 companies will be trying gamification by 2020, but that most projects will fail. And the reason isn’t that we haven’t developed best practices. The failure is inevitable, because people aren’t pigeons in a Skinner box, pecking a lever to get a food pellet.

The need for a renewed push in the enterprise to reengage every person with their personal work, to find meaning and purpose, has never been greater. But adding badges to users’ profiles on whatever work management tool the company is on, showing that Bette is a super expert customer support staffer, or whatever, is the shallowest sort of employee recognition, like giving out coffee mugs to the folks with the lowest number of sick days.

We need to build deep culture, where the foundation of the new work ethos is on people’s relationship to their own work: gaining mastery in their work domain, acquiring higher levels of autonomy, and gaining the respect of coworkers. For that, we don’t need no stinking badges.