The Perils and Fruits of Routine.

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One of the most actual trends in some areas of work is its “gamification”. Especially in call centers idle computer capacities and analytic software are used to convert work activities into a game. Customer service, a prominent area of application, becomes a contest in which premiums, titles and the applause of colleagues and superiors can be won. Nic Fleming from the BBC gave recently an extensive overview of the approach and its problems.
Gamification is a modern variant of what was known 50 years ago as “job enrichment” and in fact, despite all progress in assisting technologies, solving the problems of people via the telephone is a often very tiring and unrewarding job. The pictures of endless lines of operators donning headsets in the newspapers today resemble those of typists and telephone operators decades ago. They also hint at similarities in the tasks which are typically characterized by a high level of routine and repetition.
Consequently, absentism and turnover in call centers can be significant. Many individuals working there do so part-time or for a short time until a more satisfying job is found. These problems place call centers into the focus of organizational psychologists. How much enthusiasm for the job can be expected after some months of booking flights for strangers on the phone?
It is, however, in general a fundamental contradiction of standardized industrial processes that they should be reliable routines of organizational fulfillment on the one hand and motivating activities for those engaged in them on the other. On first sight this does not go together well in call centers, garment factories, and assembly lines. The burden of boredom and monotony is, however, found at many work places and not restricted to what might be labeled “simple” work. Routine can be a curse for those regularly having to provide it, but it is its’ quality of experience based excellence which is sought for at the receiving end. You do not want an experimental artist as your dentist, but a skilled professional with a wealth of routines delivered to perfection by his hopefully golden hands when it comes to injections and drilling.
Routines give freedom, the really difficult times in life are normally the weeks, months or years of learning and practice in which they are formed. You will remember your driving lessons, a time of concentration, stress and hard training until the car was first time backed up right. Today you will be able to do that swiftly listening to the music of your radio or talking to your neighbor. Nearly all cognitive capacities used during the phase of learning and acquisition are today free for other things.
On the assembly work-floors especially in developing countries and in fact in many call center activities it is the sole reliance on routines and speed requirements which make the job problematically monotone. Companies in the industrialized countries have for decades without much success tried to cope with this characteristic by job rotation, team work, and job enrichment. In the end technical automation abolished a lot of these jobs and many others have been transferred to developing countries. Gamification may in fact be a method to create a context in which monotone routine activities can be seen also from a funny and playful side.
Of course, it must be a good game with an incentive and content structure treating players as intelligent and a design rewarding the work activities in a meaningful way. The frequently found lack of these characteristics lets analysts at Gartner Research already now conclude that gamification is more driven by novelty and hype than by actual demonstrations of its effectiveness.
Whilst gamification was obviously invented for motivating less skilled labor activities, the idea of working as gaming as opposed to just working is a natural ingredient of top-level executives and entrepreneurs for long. Time Magazine spoke of the “age of the gamesman” already in 1977 after Michael Maccoby introduced a sportive attitude as the one best fitting management one year before.
The “gamesman” followed the “organization man”, a character introduced by William Hollingsworth Whyte 20 years earlier, and while in fact independent professionals and top-tier executives may be able to play business games doing their jobs, the majority of employees also today remains the “organization man” or “woman”. Tied to the lower strata of an organization their experience and routine is a cornerstone of corporate performance. They lack, however, the freedom of the “gamesman” to pursue new goals and develop new areas of activity. It is this group which regularly complains about boredom at work and a lack of new opportunities. Often around their forties settled with kids these individuals rarely complain openly, but regularly choose to withdraw, display a passive resignative work satisfaction, sometimes even burnout. You often see their real energy outside the work place in splendid gardens, exposed positions in local leisure time organizations, and perfected hobbies.
It is this group which can, if motivated and embedded, help a company most to reach new horizons or overcome chronic organizational impediments. The three magical words to develop this undervalued asset, as INSEAD professor Quy Huy labels middle-management in general, are career, teams and rotation. Not everybody can make it to the top of an organization, but careers should extent as long and as far as possible. Promotions regularly beat new hires when it comes to effectiveness and costs. Cross-functional teams can help to improve quality and effectiveness of an organization directly, but, in addition, members learn where their experience and routine might be put to a use outside their established domain. This experience is enriching and broadens the skill base. Finally, job rotation should be made available to all and be made less dependent upon age and location. A policy of regular job rotation is a core principle in some of the most successful Japanese and Korean companies.