Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Online games find favor among hiring managers

January 4, 2014

Before much longer, you might be evaluating job applicants by having them play online games.

Hiring managers know that one of a company’s hardest jobs is finding the right people. Jim Collins, in his book “Good to Great,” calls it “getting the right people on the bus and then getting those people in the right seats.”

The challenge, of course, is twofold. You have to unearth those few good applicants, then you have to separate them from the herd of inappropriate ones. The first part is tough enough, but a good advertisement and a passable network usually can generate enough resumes to contain a few gems. But then the task is knowing which of those gems is the one you really want.

For centuries, this part of recruitment was done by interview, which as any hiring manager can tell you, is not a good predictor of performance. Too many applicants can fake the interview. There are actually books, websites and courses in how to get through an interview. So recruiters emulated the U.S. Armed Forces and started using personality tests, which also have spotty histories as predictors.

Later, skills-assessment tests popped up that supposedly measured abilities and not personalities. But those tests proved to be only marginally better as predictors, because the tests are so limited that you get only a few data points from them.

One high-tech answer to the problem is what’s being called “gamification,” or bringing game-playing to mundane tasks. The idea is to mimic real-world conditions as closely as possible in a game and see how the applicant responds.

Unlike ordinary games that have players behave in bizarre ways like shooting heavy weaponry, business games typically emphasize conditions an applicant might find on the job.

The idea of having applicants solve problems while in the HR office isn’t new. Businesses have long posed puzzles, riddles or problems to applicants to see how well they do. But again, solving such things hasn’t proven to be predictive of other important attributes, like social skills or versatility. Games test all of that, and produce huge amounts of data.

In Wasabi Waiter from Knack.it, for example, the player has to cope with common business situations, such as serving demanding customers, prioritizing tasks, assembling a workable process strategy, and coping with increasing difficulty as the game progresses. After the game ends, Knack.it uses the now-huge quantity of data about the applicant to grade him or her on various dimensions of business operations.

Knack.it didn’t pioneer this approach. Marriott did with its online Facebook game “My Marriott Hotel.” Young Facebook users are often familiar with other games like Sims or Farmville, so Marriott’s game has captured a lot of useful attention from millennials, the cohort of ages 18 through 27.

Marriott still uses the game to have potential applicants self-winnow. If you don’t like the pressures of running a major restaurant kitchen in a game, you won’t like it in real life, either. If nothing else, Marriott appears to have established itself as having some chic in an industry that doesn’t boast an overabundance of it among the young.

L’Oreal wasn’t far behind Marriott with its own “Reveal” online game, which has compelling techno music and a lengthy lead-in that challenges the visitor as much as enticing him, a combination of the cosmetics industry and the Marine Corps.

And speaking of the military, the Army has its version of a recruiting game that’s proven popular: “America’s Army.” Even stodgy IBM has produced a game for city planners, “CityOne.”

There isn’t yet a long-enough track record in gamification to know just how effective it is for separating the wheat from mountains of chaff. It still has the aura of novelty about it and the candidates it identifies haven’t been on the job long enough for companies to draw conclusions.

The millennials who are targeted by these games are a notoriously fickle lot, moving readily from company to company, so it’s possible that Marriott or another gamification user might be doing their competitors a favor by identifying top talent and giving them a start, only to lose them to other dangling offers.

No matter how effective gamification might prove to be, it won’t replace interviews or personality tests. Older applicants might balk at playing games, or may not be good enough at them to be measurable. It might be easier to test for low-level skills than executive ones. But no matter what, look for yet more Big Data-esque techniques like gamification to invade the HR suite soon.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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