Brain power

The potential for gamification in knowledge management

Gamification has recently entered the arena of management practice and research, where it is rapidly gaining ground. A new paper1 explores the potential for gamification to be used to support knowledge workers, with a focus on innovation-oriented organisations.

Children and adults across the world collectively spend more than 3 billion hours playing games, which many see as a waste of time. However, others have suggested that we should instead seek to understand why games are so engaging, and try to replicate them in the work environment.

Gamification, which the paper defines as “the process of making activities in non-game contexts more game-like”, has taken off as a result of the development of information technologies. It is already relatively widely researched and applied in the fields of education and marketing.

The word ‘gamification’ did not come into existence until 2002, and was not discussed seriously and widely until around 2008. However, experiments in gamification have been around for more than 30 years, with early examples including loyalty cards and frequent flyer programs. In these programs, people earn points and redeem them for a range of rewards, and in doing so the company increases the return rate of customers. More recent examples include TripAdvisor’s user rating and feedback system, where people can gain higher statuses through more frequent contributions. The earliest knowledge management tool to incorporate elements of gaming is forums, where contributors are rated and given points, and major contributors are recognised as experts.

A distinguishing feature of work in the 21st century is the emergence of knowledge workers. After an extensive literature review to identify the elements of gamification, the paper uses the case study of a company called Zappos to demonstrate how gamification can be used to support these knowledge workers.

The elements of gamification

The authors advise that a range of ways of classifying the elements of gamification have been proposed, but settle on one method, arguing that it is the most logical. This method classifies the elements as components, mechanics, and dynamics:

  • Components are the basic building blocks, the objects, that users see and interact with, such as points, badges and leaderboards.
  • Mechanics operate at a higher level, and link different building blocks with each other and describe various actions that can be performed with them.
  • Dynamics are the top level, and bind the elements of the previous levels together. This level can be characterised as conceptual models of game components and user engagement that cannot be managed directly.

The elements for each level are shown in Table 1.

Gamification elements
Table 1. Gamification elements (source: Shpakova, A., Dörfler, V. and MacBryde, J., 2016).

Zappos case study

Zappos is an online shoes and accessories shop operating in the U.S. that is famous for its customer-oriented service and fun-oriented corporate culture.  A qualitative exploratory case study was carried out, involving the analysis of primary data collected through semi-structured interviews and secondary data from the blog ZapposInsight that provides examples and insights from Zappos employees about their everyday work.

Zappos does not use the term ‘gamification’ to describe any of its work practices, but the interviews revealed numerous examples of game elements integrated into the work. A summary of the case study results is presented in Table 2, including some of the quotes from the interviews.

Zappos case study results
Table 2. Zappos case study results (source: Shpakova, A., Dörfler, V. and MacBryde, J., 2016).

Most of the Zappos gamification examples aim to establish better connections and give employees more chances to interact with and acknowledge the contributions of each other.

To further understand the ways in which gamification impacts Zappos employees, the paper:

  • reviews different classifications of knowledge workers,
  • discusses the potential connections between these roles and gamification,
  • describes the types of knowledge workers that were found in Zappos, and
  • discusses examples of gamification that were found in the company.

One way of describing knowledge workers is to categorise them into one of four groups: transactional workers (e.g. call centres), integration workers (e.g. software developers), expert workers (e.g. medical practitioners), and collaboration workers (e.g. investment banks).

The nature of work of transactional and expert workers is more individual-activities oriented and can create isolation, so more active collaboration actions need to be taken to help them overcome this isolation. Gamification contains a number of mechanics that encourage collaboration, for example, gifting, rewarding, providing feedback, rating or teaming, so gamification could become the active component that creates collaboration. Zappos employees are mostly transactional workers. The company understands this, so is actively creating collaborative dynamics through using the mechanics of peer-to-peer rewarding, gifting, and rating through FaceMail game.

Another way of classifying organisational workers is from the perspective of the knowledge tacitness and learnability, where learnability is defined by the amount of time and effort required to absorb the knowledge. There are two categories: the enacted information category includes relatively easy to learn structured knowledge and could describe call centre work, while the accumulated information category consists of a similar structure of information but requires a much more demanding learning process, a good example of which would be the work of an engineer.

Zappos employees could be classified as mostly enacted information category workers, but the company is more likely to see its employees leaning towards an apprenticeship category. For example, the customer loyalty team does not have any script to answer the calls, and instead they are encouraged to be creative with customers and establish a personal connection. Various departments also run “Shadow sessions”, involving following another person at work for several hours, in addition to or instead of the training. Employees can also become a Z’apprentice (Zappos apprentice) for six months in a different role in order to learn new skills. This degree of flexibility is supported by several gamification elements. Since the departments and projects were replaced by circles (groups), it became much easier for employees to belong to several communities. The system of people points helps to formalise this by distributing the points between the circles an employee wants to be involved in.  The company also organises various ideas competitions which allows employees to both participate in someone else’s project and pursue their own ideas.

A further way of classifying knowledge workers is from the perspective of their involvement in the knowing process. The roles are knower, knowledge seeker, the connector, the knowledge manager, and the technology steward.  Connectors have an imaginary knowledge map in their heads, and are curious about different areas of expertise in different parts of organisation. They are capable of directing the knowledge seekers. Knowledge managers are a dedicated knowledge worker role required to address problems related to knowledge sharing. The technology steward can be the partial responsibility of a knowledge manager if they obtain the required competence, or it can be a shared responsibility of other knowledge workers with more advanced knowledge of technology relatively to the others.

If the activities of knowledge workers are exposed to gamification, the knowers and the seekers will stay the primary types, but other types will change to various degrees. For example, if the knowers become more visible, the connectors are not needed anymore to identify them. Knowers can become more visible if their activities are tracked and rewarded, and if these rewards are represented with such elements as badges and experience points.  The role of connectors shifts from knowing the relevant people towards being able to introduce them to the knowledge seekers, which becomes distributed to a wider range of people if the connections are recorded by the system and are shown by means such as a social graph. The outstanding connectors become visible as having a much larger network of connection,s and identifying them as well as being able to see the knowers stays important for the knowledge managers.

Apart from other responsibilities, the knowledge manager is a designer of the working knowledge environment, becoming or working closely with the technology steward. Designing this environment is an iterative process, and gamified systems can be a test ground for experiments with various initiatives and the reaction of the knowledge workers on it, for example, the effectiveness of awards, statuses, and contests.

Gamification could make different roles as well as each knowledge worker more visible, and this is mainly achieved through the use of badges and groups (circles) that visualise and map the organisational knowledge, and interventions (FaceMail) and peer-to-peer rewards that help identify more socially engaged workers.  The immediate purpose of the compensation and skills badges is to show others the skills and competences that a particular person has, and to create transparency with regards to salary in particular. Badges, people points and circles together become a powerful tool to record and show the concentration of interest of the employees in certain areas. On the individual level, the FaceMail game helps people to see the level of connectivity of different employees, as well as helping them to get to know each other better. But as it happens with any initiative, it will not be attractive for everyone.

Gamification could initiate dynamics, for example, start a conversation, especially if people are separated by distance from each other. Gamification could also be used to identify types of knowledge workers that are not necessarily covered by any of the classifications. The company is already using power points as one of the indicators of people who make good decisions locally. There are other ways to use gamification in a corporate environment. For instance, a company could create a platform where employees could share their ideas and rate ideas of others, provide feedback and earn points for submitting ideas, providing feedback and suggesting improvements.

Header image source: Zappos by TopRank Marketing is licensed by CC BY 2.0.


  1. Shpakova, A., Dörfler, V. and MacBryde, J. (2016). The role(s) of gamification in knowledge management. In: EURAM 2016: 16th Annual Conference of the European Academy of Management, 2016-06-01 – 2016-06-04, Université Paris Est Créteil.
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Also published on Medium.

Bruce Boyes

Bruce Boyes ( is a knowledge management (KM), environmental management, and education professional with over 30 years of experience in Australia and China. His work has received high-level acclaim and been recognised through a number of significant awards. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation Group at Wageningen University and Research, and holds a Master of Environmental Management with Distinction. He is also the editor, lead writer, and a director of the award-winning RealKM Magazine (, and teaches in the Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) Certified High-school Program (CHP).

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