Data Analytics HR Analytics

Data Analytics: Using HR Analytics to Support Managerial Decisions

HR analytics is receiving increasingly greater formal attention because of its direct link to organizational effectiveness and profitability. HR analytics facilitates workforce optimization, derives metrics for workforce performance improvement, enables a more strategic contribution from HR and have greater impact on organizational decisions.

What is HR analytics? It is the systematic identification and quantification of the people drivers of business outcomes. The global HR analytics market size was valued at $2.25 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 14.2% from 2020 to 2027[1].

As a case in point, a major manufacturer posed four questions related to the potential value in HR analytics.  Each question and the derived insights are provided below.

Question 1: How can we improve identification of employees who have a high risk of leaving?”

Through analysis of existing employee performance and incentive data, the following insights were derived:

  • Employees who had been transferred or promoted were more likely to leave – especially those with lower merit payouts.
  • The window of employment with the highest probability of departure was around three to six years – this was the timeframe that the employer needed to invest the most time and energy in retention.
  • Where there was a mismatch between experience, tenure, and job bands (position and personal), the employee had a high likelihood of voluntary attrition. This was true regardless whether the position job band was lower or higher than would be expected given tenure and experience.
  • Employees who left voluntarily were consistently performing higher with regular merit increases or were performing lower with regular merit decreases than employees who did not leave.
  • Discrepancies with incentives were always associated with attrition (e.g., higher merit scores but lower actual vs. target payouts).

Question 2: Does the company do well retaining high-performers?

While generally the answer was found to be “Yes“, HR analytics generated unexpected findings. 


  • While all the high performers, across all regions in this company had a lower voluntary attrition rate than average and low performers, the top performers in the European region had higher voluntary attrition rates than did the average performers.  This led to different incentive policies in that region.
  • The profiles of high performers who leave voluntarily tend to be younger, have higher actual vs. target pay, higher merit scores, have two to three years of tenure, and were promoted or transferred recently.

Question 3: Does the previous year’s merit and payout drive higher performance for the following year?

In general, high merit was found to be positively related to high performance, but not for actual vs. target payouts. But this finding varied by region. For example, in Asia, increased merit and actual vs. target payout contributed to higher performance, however in South America, increased merit and actual vs. target payouts lead to decreased performance in the following year. Again, this finding informed incentive policy by region.

Question 4: How do we analyze engagement survey data, including both structured (i.e. categorical responses) and unstructured data (i.e. free form text)?

This question of integration of traditional structured survey data with unstructured text data is increasingly driving conversations in HR Analytics – until the last several years, text-based data was almost impossible to analyze.  With advancements in techniques like natural language processing, the ability to extract meaning and sentiment from large text fields and mine the results for insights is commonplace. 

With this specific manufacturer, the structured employee survey data was primarily numerical scores of each survey question on a scale from 1-5.  The unstructured data was collected from the employees’ free form responses to two survey questions “What things excite you about working in the company?” and “What things don’t excite you about working in the company?

For the structured data, the survey questions were grouped into five categories: growth, positive leadership, autonomy, competence, and pride. The structured data was then linked to the survey results related to departure type (e.g., voluntary or involuntary) to determine relationship with termination. Results revealed that higher engagement scores in growth, positive leadership, autonomy, were associated with higher voluntary attrition while higher competence and pride scores were associated with lower voluntary attrition. These results were then combined with an entity sentiment analysis on the free form text.

Entity sentiment analysis combines both entity analysis and sentiment analysis and attempts to determine the sentiment (positive or negative) expressed about entities within the text. For example, if the employee’s answer was “I don’t like the HR system”, the algorithm would identify the entity at issue as “HR system” and give “HR system” a negative sentiment score. Using this integrated approach, results demonstrated that employees had the most positive attitudes (sentiment) towards development, growth and opportunity, environment and atmosphere, teamwork, and group relationships. Employees had the most negative attitudes (sentiment) towards leadership, manager, training, development and opportunity, work and life balance.

Answering these questions enabled this manufacturer to understand its employee more clearly, predict the employees’ turnover more accurately, make managerial decisions more effectively, and reduce the operational cost more significantly.

For more details, please check our paper at https://dl.acm.org/doi/pdf/10.1145/3374135.3385281

[1] Grand View Research. Global HR analytics market SIZE: Industry REPORT, 2020-2027, from https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/hr-analytics-market

Extreme Coaching

Learning Transfer: The Growing Popularity of Extreme Coaching (EC)

Born in the crucible of Agile Software Development and Extreme Programing (EP), Extreme Coaching (EC) repurposes successful values, patterns and practices from the world of technology product development to the world of personal and professional development. While this might sound strange at first blush, consider that an important reason Agile approaches to product development work well is because they are lightweight, human-centric approaches that advocate careful prioritization, focus, teamwork, iterative innovation and continuous improvement.

In Repenning and Kieffer’s excellent analysis of the applicability of Agile practices to domains outside software development, they conclude by offering the idea that “best principles” are superior to best practices since they are necessarily adapted to the situation at hand; and so it is with coaching.

In Extreme Coaching (EC), the person being coached is called the Player, borrowing from the apt analogy of sports. The Extreme Coach is half of a coaching dyad, and is the primary person working with the Player. The other half of the coaching dyad is the Coach’s Coach or C2 or Second. The Second is there to observe the coach on the field of play as they coach the Player, and to provide retrospective coaching and advice to the Extreme Coach. (This dyadic approach to coaching borrows from the notion of Pair Programming, a defining and important practice of Extreme Programming; more on this later.)

The singular goal of Extreme Coaching is to help the Player continuously improve toward the realization of their full potential. Although Extreme Coaching is currently only focused on the professional realm, this goal covers a tremendous amount of ground, and the Extreme Coach has a number of tools at their disposal to guide the Player on their improvement journey.

Although Extreme Coaching operates within the bounds of generally accepted best practices for coaching in general, the overarching Agile principles and specific related practices improve the efficiency, quality, speed and impact versus more traditional approaches. This is similar to the way Agile development methodologies employ project and program management best principles resulting in superior efficiency, quality, speed and value. Although one may find some of Extreme Coaching’s practices in other coaching programs, one is unlikely to find all or even a majority of them. The synergistic interaction of these practices and the underlying best principles are what provide the additional benefit.

The underlying foundation of Extreme Coaching is embodied in five key values which are adopted directly from Extreme Programming. The values are communication, simplicity, feedback, courage, and respect.


Coaching is a team endeavor with communication at its core. Extreme Coaching advocates for the use of the richest form of communication for the circumstance. In-person where suitable, then video conferencing where in-person is not suitable, then audio where video is not suitable, and finally in limited capacity, written form where the others are not suitable.


Simplicity means asking: “What is the simplest thing that will work?” What is the smallest action we can take to make sustainable progress toward the goal? Human nature, when confronting the need for adaptation or change, is often to make big, bold moves. (Go big or go home!) Unfortunately change is difficult and big change even more so. Counterintuitively, simplicity is extraordinarily difficult for high achievers who can see the big picture and the amount of work that needs to be done. Nevertheless, small, simple improvements when compounded pay huge dividends over time compared to complex changes that fail to get sustainably implemented.


Continuous feedback between the Coach and the Player uncovers opportunities to improve in real-time. Through feedback, a coaching unit identifies areas for improvement and updates its approach. Feedback bolsters simplicity and relies on communication. Feedback leads to ever-improving practices and guards against complacency and tacit acceptance of mediocrity. Feedback demands transparency and dealing with facts. Once facts are brought to the surface, they can be acted upon. Ignored or hidden facts derail and subvert improvement.


Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather effective execution in spite of fear. Fear is a human emotion that will inevitably appear when there is perceived danger. It is unavoidable in Extreme Coaching, and some degree of fear is a common indication that effective coaching is taking place. The fear experienced in a Coaching relationship is anticipation of confronting a problem, or making a change, or stepping out of a comfort zone in some way. The Coach should never, ever be a direct source of fear! Intimidation, or creating an environment that threatens someone’s sense of psychological or physical safety has no place in Coaching. The Coach is a partner in acting courageously. Everyone in the coaching relationship is expected to act with courage. Courage is required for feedback to be possible.


The members of a coaching unit must have mutual respect in order to embody any of the other values. Respect also requires mutual trust. Any breaks in trust or lapses in respect must be handled with courage, communication, and feedback, otherwise respect will be impossible, and results will be scant if not non-existent.

The inter-dependence of these values is important for Coaches and Players to remember, as they form the foundation and an important set of benchmarks that will be visited time and time again during the coaching journey.

We’ve covered the genesis, goals and values of Extreme Coaching. In our next installment we will explore the defining practices of Extreme Coaching and map them to proven Agile and XP principles.

Leadership Development

Leadership Development: The Importance and Impact of Integrity

Excellent leaders share certain things in common. They may be skills such as effectively delegating or communicating with empathy. However, they also display certain traits, none more essential to successful leadership than Integrity.

So, what is integrity? Let’s start with some definitions, beginning with the “old reliable” Oxford English Dictionary: “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles”. Or how about Merriam-Webster: “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values; incorruptibility.” You see where this is going; certain threads like moral principles, values, and honesty emerge. But there’s another important perspective captured by one of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes: “Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.” What this adds is the fully internalized locus of the motivation to do what one believes is “right.” The moral compass, the values, and the honesty stem from an individual’s core principles and they shape a wide range of behaviors, including what decisions one makes (and how one makes them), how one views and treats others, and of course how one leads.

One of my early encounters with the concept came in the form of values-based leadership as taught at the U.S. Army War College. From an initial stint as Visiting Professor to serving as the first-ever fully civilian Chair of one of the core teaching departments, I spent 14 years at Carlisle Barracks, and I got to know the “Army Values” very well and, more importantly, see them in action. (See: https://www.army.mil/values/)  In “Army Values” terms integrity means: “Do what’s right, legally and morally. Integrity is a quality you develop by adhering to moral principles. It requires that you do and say nothing that deceives others. As your integrity grows, so does the trust others place in you.”

Other encounters with the concept included: Leading a non-profit organization that helped prepare people to run for and hold elected office, starting up and running a construction and development company, and working with international investors. I also consulted on leadership and strategy in law enforcement, higher education, and national and international security. I learned from others and from experience both how to lead and how to teach leadership. From all of that I learned that among the seven or so core traits of effective leaders, integrity was the foundation.

Why the foundation? Grounded in principles that are reflected in decisions made and actions taken (consistently doing what those core principles require), it is the bedrock for building trust in any relationship, team, or organization. You can’t fake integrity because it’s revealed in actions and their relationship to words spoken. To say or assert one has integrity is not enough; actions truly speak louder than words. Although internally rooted, it’s the external recognition of it that builds trust from others. Successful leaders know they need others to understand both what they did or decided and why, especially when others don’t agree with it. The most complementary words I have heard in my roles as leader generally come in this form: “I still don’t agree with your decision, Robin, but I know why you made it….I respect that, and will do my best to help us succeed.” That kind of trust encourages others not simply to follow leaders but to help them lead and help the organization succeed. Experimentation and innovation go hand-in-hand in successful organizations, and that requires taking risks which in turn requires trust.

Surveys conducted of executives concerning the traits they look for in developing future leaders consistently place integrity at the top (ahead of interpersonal/communication, initiative, and ability to motivate others). Why? Because it’s impossible to be a consistently effective leader without the trust that grows from people knowing that the leader is someone with genuine integrity. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and we can play to our strengths and work on our weaknesses. But if a person’s weakness is as fundamental and foundational as integrity, the leadership will be either ineffective or still worse destructive (for individuals and the organization).

Question: How do you know—or strive to know—whether you have that integrity? Answer: Ask yourself! For example, try asking yourself whether you are being open and honest with others. Better still, ask yourself if you’re being fully open and honest with yourself. I actually learned this from a highly respected and trusted lobbyist. Yes, a lobbyist! But a lobbyist from the days when to be successful and effective the one thing you could NOT be was a person who lacked integrity and was instead inclined to “play fast and loose” with laws and ethics. Those people almost always got themselves and the people, companies and interests they represented in lots of trouble. Why? Because of something else I’ve learned and taught: All things legal are not necessarily ethical; and even some things ethical are not always legal. Perplexing to say the least! When asked about this huge gray area while presenting in the non-profit I mentioned—to individuals who wanted to run for and hold elected office—this very wise gentleman answered with something I will never forget: “If you have to ask yourself the question…you probably already know the answer.” Think about it! Are you trying to talk yourself into or out of something? Are you trying to rationalize it? Is there another voice—or should there be other voices—in that conversation? Integrity will let you know if it’s there or if it isn’t, but as a leader you have to ensure you are giving it a chance to speak. Asking yourself such questions needs to be part of your personal decision-making process.

Finally, self-awareness and self-honesty are also key elements of integrity. Knowing that we all make mistakes or missteps and cannot possibly be right all the time is important, yes; but owning, acknowledging, and accepting them are also signs of principled, genuine integrity. That awareness, honesty and humility help individuals succeed in what Steve Jobs observed leadership is: “…inspiring people to do things they never thought they could.”

Talent Development

Talent Development: Improving the Performance Appraisal Process

If your departments are complaining about performance appraisals, then they are not alone. NPR reports that stats from CEB, a research firm blog, indicate that 83 percent of human resource (HR) managers believe that their performance evaluation systems need an overhaul.1 I would argue that most employees dislike the evaluation process, and you may be surprised to learn that the supervisors do too.

The very nature of evaluating another individual’s performance can be stressful and uncomfortable for all. It can seem like the worst day of the year—but it doesn’t have to be.

A Different, But Still High-Risk, Part of the Job

In most traditional businesses, supervisors oversee employees working an 8-hour or 10-hour shift with readily available performance metrics involving revenue and bottom-line expectations. This is not often the case for front-line supervisors in the fire service. Typically, we ask our supervisors to oversee 24-hour shifts with a mission primarily focused on serving our constituents by protecting life and property. Absent any critical safety issues or errors, judging an individual’s performance in the fire station environment can be, and usually is, extremely difficult.

Although we have several examples and different methods we can draw from, many departments fail because they consider their assessment only as a one-time event, not to mention that their members often lack the training to adequately conduct an assessment. Supervisors who are unprepared and experiencing their own anxiety often cause confusion for their direct reports, unfortunately producing unintended results. This reminds me of Gordon Graham’s high-risk/low-frequency model of fire service incidents or events. We do a phenomenal job of training our men and women on the one thing that may cause them the most risk. Why is the same not true about employee performance? It fits the same model. We do it infrequently and the risk is high. After all, a poorly thought-out and executed performance appraisal can result in the employee leaving the appraisal without a true understanding of past performance and, more importantly, without clear guidance for future performance expectations.  

Where Do We Start?

Greg Popovich, head coach of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, posted the following quote on one of his locker room walls: “Look at a stone cutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred-and-first blow, it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before” — Jacob Riis. 

In other words, the results we are seeking will come because of the execution along the way with each interaction and not just one 20-minute performance appraisal discussion.

Path to Success

There are several things you can do to strengthen your process, leading you to a successful annual performance appraisal experience:

  • Offer consistent informal feedback throughout the year: You see something, say something (for every negative comment, consider four positives). Also, tell the employee what they need to start, stop and continue doing to improve performance.
  • Distinguish between employee goals and employee development: Customize employee development and discuss and/or document employee goals.
  • Ask more questions: Do you understand the department’s expectations? Are you clear on your objectives?
  • Discuss the evaluation with your supervisor before having the conversation: It always helps to have another perspective.
  • Allow the employee to self-evaluate: This will help align employee perception with reality.
  • Eliminate the fluff! Stay objective and give specific examples, good and/or bad.

Once it’s time to sit down for the “dreaded” annual performance evaluation, hopefully you have accomplished the main objective of having employees who understand how they have performed and where they added value. 

Three Conversations

Many of us have heard about high, middle, and low performers, but few of us have ever been trained on how to have conversations with each type. According to Quint Studer, a businessman and philanthropist, the ability to identify which conversation to have with these three types is necessary and is the lifeline to ensure that your department is motivating employee engagement.2

Conversation #1: High Performers

One of the biggest frustrations I see with high performers, especially with chief officers, is the overuse of the politically correct “Thank you for what you do” comment. If the team member has achieved high performance markings, it usually means they exceeded expectations consistently and more than likely made personal sacrifices. These conversations need to be specific, providing details on why they exceeded your expectations as well as and the department’s expectations. I would also encourage you to find ways to engage their interest and feedback as to where they feel they made the largest contributions and how they can continue to grow.

Conversation #2: Solid Performers

In our organization, we changed the term “middle performer” to “solid performer.” Most of our firefighters fall into this category, which is not a bad thing. But, this conversation has the potential for being the most damaging. If not well executed, the opportunity to demotivate, rather than motivate, a solid contributor can very easily take place. In many cases, you have firefighters who are “solid,” doing a good job, but they believe they should be rated higher. So how do you keep them motivated and engaged? Well, hopefully the supervisor has been providing feedback throughout the year and coaching them along the way. It is also important to know where the employee wants to be in terms of performance. Do they want to be a high performer? Do they know what that looks like and requires? Or are they happy being a solid performer? 

Conversation #3: Low Performers

Low-performer conversations tend to be the most difficult for supervisors in the fire service. In some instances, low-performing members have mastered the art of diversion and excuses, and this often leads to a supervisor leaving the conversation feeling defeated and inadequate. How can that happen? I would argue these types of employees have been successfully negotiating and manipulating their performance since kindergarten. One way you can avoid this is through redirecting and initiating action. Keep the conversation short and be clear about the consequences of not meeting goals and continued complacency.

Crossing the finish line

With a cumulative approach to the performance appraisal process and a focus on having the right conversation, we stand a good chance of motivating our teams. But it’s going to require constant, genuine engagement. Keep pounding the rock! Repenning and Kieffer’s excellent analysis of the applicability of Agile practices to domains outside software development, they conclude by offering the idea that “best principles” are superior to best practices since they are necessarily adapted to the situation at hand; and so it is with coaching.

Leadership Development

Leadership Development: Communicating with Empathy

Empathy is the ability to feel another person’s experience. Respect is the ability to value another person’s experience. Excellent leaders know how to communicate with empathy.

But first, what is leadership? If you Google “definition of leadership” you will receive about 20 million proposed answers. In my opinion, leadership is best defined as “the things we do and say that inspire others to take on their most difficult challenges and succeed.” And what is the most important thing we can do to inspire others? It’s learning how to communicate with empathy.

So, what is empathy? And what does it mean to have empathy skills? The best answers come from Dr. Helen Reiss who teaches empathy at the Harvard Medical School and is the Vice President of Empathy at Massachusetts General Hospital. She defines empathy using each of the seven letters. I’ve modified some of the definitions in an effort to laser focus on leading and inspiring others.

The “E” stands for Eye contact. Dr. Reiss teaches us that all human beings have the innate desire “to be seen” so it’s very important to make good eye contact with people, especially when they are speaking. Film producer and author Brian Grazer, in his book Face to Face: The Art of Human Connection, states: “We use many tools during face to face contact that help us communicate more clearly and navigate relationships. For me, however, eye contact is far and away the most critical. It’s like the wifi of human connection. Just as wifi connects us to endless information on the internet, making eye contact opens up endless possibilities.”

The “M” stands for the Muscles in our face. A person can learn a lot about us by watching our facial expressions. During every face to face communication we need be upbeat, interested, and likable. And what’s the best way to be upbeat and likable—it begins with our smile. We should never underestimate the power of a smile. My mentor taught me that if you don’t like your smile you should save the money to have a dentist help you find your very best smile.

The “P” stands for Posture. There are dozens of books and videos on the power of body language. Body language is a type of nonverbal communication in which our physical behaviors, as opposed to our words, are used to convey information. This behavior includes body posture, hand gestures, eye movement, and the use of space. Dr. Helen Reiss found that physicians delivering news to a patient is much better received when the physician is sitting rather than standing. Yes, posture makes a difference.

The “A” stands for how our life stories Affect others. Stories are a universal language of sorts. We all appreciate a good story—one where we can share feelings of joy or hope or conquering a challenge. Sharing a good story can give even the most diverse people a sense of commonality and community. We all need to master the art of telling a good story—and making sure we tell the story at the right time and for the right reason.

The “T” stands for Tone of voice. It’s our tone of voice that tells others how we feel about our message, and it will influence how they will feel about our message. We all need to find our best voice. We need to speak at the right pitch and the right speed for the situation. And when it comes to public speaking, the messenger is just as important as the message. Our tone of voice, no matter how nervous we are, should project confidence and likability.

The “H” stands for Hearing the other person. Listening is one of the most important skills we can have in life—both at work and at home. We probably spend more time using our listening skills than any other kind of skill. And like other skills, listening takes practice. We need to both “hear”and understand the other person. The most common negative listening habits are known as faking, interrupting, and logical listening. Faking is where we nod, make eye contact, give “uh huh’s” but aren’t really listening. Interrupting is where we don’t allow the speaker to finish and we don’t ask clarifying questions—we are too anxious to have our say. Logical listening is where we judge the speaker’s words and fit them into our logic box—we rarely ask about the underlying feelings attached to the communication.

The “Y” stands for Your questions! If we want to truly connect with others we need to ask great questions and then genuinely listen to what they have to say. Excellent leaders ask the right questions, at the right time, and for the right reasons. For example, good general questions might include:

    • What can I do to be a better leader?
    • What organization process needs to be fixed or improved?
    • If you were running the department, what would you do differently?
    • On a scale of 1 to 10, how satisfied are you with your own career progress?
    • When do you have the most fun at work?
    • How can the organization design your role to create what’s next in your career?
    • Is there anything you need from me?

So, remember, if you truly want to be an excellent leader who is highly respected throughout the organization, then you need to master the art and science of communicating with empathy. Good luck!


Leadership Development

Leadership Development: The Art and Science of Delegating

What do excellent leaders have in common? They have mastered the art and science of delegating. For most of us, delegating is not easy. We often assume that no one else can do the project or task as good as we can do it—or as fast as we can do it. We typically think that we’re improving our productivity by just doing it ourselves. This is a mistake.

Why should we delegate? There are three reasons. First, delegating the “right” projects to someone else is an effective way to help the other person develop new and important skills. We especially need to delegate the tasks that are no longer developmental for us but would be developmental to the others in the organization. Delegating in the “right way” will help us inspire, develop, and retain our top-performing employees.

Second, effectively delegating to others will free up our time to take on new and challenging activities. Projects that are both important to the organization and developmental for us. If we’re smart, we will also delegate as a way to effectively manage our time and our stress. We will talk more about managing time and stress in an upcoming TLC blog.

Third, and most importantly, effectively delegating at work will help us spend more quality time with our family. It’s important to remember that there is no success at work that’s worth a failure at home. Excellent leaders know how to take control of their calendars. And, they typically have a copy of David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity somewhere on their desk.

What should we delegate? There’s a big difference between delegating and effectively delegating. To truly delegate effectively, we need to let go of three precious items—responsibility, accountability, and authority. The key is to delegate the responsibility to a single person, not a team and we should publicly communicate to the entire organization that the new person is now in charge.

The best way to delegate accountability and authority is to give the person control over all budget decisions. As leaders, we need to provide clarity on who is accountable by letting the new person define the project’s scope and desired outcomes. Delegating authority means that person now has total control over the project’s schedule, and more importantly—the budget.

How should we delegate? As leaders, we need to clearly tell the new person in charge the “why” and the “what” of the project but we should never tell them “how” to do it. For many of us, this is very hard to do because we think we’re helping the person when we tell them how to do it. I think it’s the worst thing we can do to someone—especially if it’s a high-performing employee. When we tell them the “how” of the project, what they hear and feel instead is that we don’t trust them. Telling them the “how” will demotivate the person and hurt the organization because the person would probably do the project better than us if given the chance.

Delegating an important project to someone else doesn’t mean we abandon them. Excellent leaders provide clarity on the format and timing of communications they expect from the new project leader. However, communication requests are usually kept at a minimum and focus on the mission-critical aspects of the project.

In summary, when we delegate an important project or task, we should clearly tell the other person the project’s “why” and the “what” but never the “how.” We have to delegate the responsibility, the accountability, and the authority. We also need to provide clarity on the desired communication levels and formats.

I strongly believe that effectively delegating to others has the potential to be a life-changing leadership skill. It will help you be more productive. It will help you manage your stress. And, it will help others in the organization develop important knowledge and skills. Good luck!


Program Design: Discover “GAME-ified” Online Learning

During my career in higher education, I had the privilege of leading a team responsible for
building digital badge programs using the best practices in gamification and micro-learning.
We found two books to be extremely valuable; Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with
Technology by Dr. Michelle Miller and Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges and
Leaderboards by Yu-Kai Chou. My program design team and I learned that actionable
gamification is the key to designing online leadership programs.

What is gamification? According to Yu-Kai Chou, gamification “is the craft of deriving fun and
engaging elements found typically in games and thoughtfully applying them to real-world or
productive activities. This process is what I call ‘human-focused design’ in opposition to what we
normally find in society as ‘function-focused design.” Human-focused design optimizes for
human motivation in a system as opposed to optimizing for pure functional efficiency within the

According to Yu-Kai Chou, gamification “is the craft of deriving fun and engaging elements
found typically in games and thoughtfully applying them to real-world or productive activities.
This process is what I call ‘human-focused design’ in opposition to what we normally find in
society as ‘function-focused design.” Human-focused design optimizes for human motivation in
a system as opposed to optimizing for pure functional efficiency within the system.

Why is actionable gamification important? Just as Yu-Kai Chou predicted, we found that
simply incorporating game mechanics and game thinking into a digital badge program does not
fully engage the learners. It’s not just about the game elements, it’s how points and
leaderboards are integrated with practical knowledge that is both backed by research and
proven in practice. We have to make the gamification actionable using human-focused design!
Our new friend Yu-Kai Chou had identified eight core drivers of actionable gamification.

Epic Meaning and Calling: The best place to start is to design and launch a program where
the learner “believes they are doing something greater than themselves and they were ‘chosen’
to take that action.” We found that the best way to engage this core driver is to have the
company’s most-respected executive kick-off the digital badge program, either in person or via a
video—congratulating the learners and delivering an inspiring explanation of the “why” behind
the program.

Development and Accomplishment: The next core driver focuses on “our internal drive for
making progress, developing skills, achieving mastery, and eventually over-coming challenges.”
As Yu-Kai Chou teaches us, receiving “a badge or trophy without a challenge is not meaningful
at all.” I learned that it is important to integrate the short, highly-engaging videos with frequent,
low-stakes testing. This will challenge the program participant to embrace, remember, and apply
what they’re learning.

Empowerment of Creativity and Feedback: The empowerment of creativity and feedback
core driver “is expressed when users are engaged in a creative process where they repeatedly
figure new things out and try different combinations.” Today’s modern learners want to express
their creativity, see the results of their creativity and receive feedback. All of the activities in a
digital badge program need to be intrinsically engaging and fun.

Ownership and Possession: According to Yu-Kai Chou, learners are “motivated when they
feel like they own or control something. When a person feels ownership over something, they
innately want to increase and improve what they own.” Think Wikipedia. At KSU, we use the
Jubi learning transfer platform for our digital badge programs because the designers at Rali get
it! They provide a seamless integration of actionable gamification tools for learning, doing and

Social Influence and Relatedness: Digital badge programs need to incorporate all of the social
elements that motivate people including social acceptance, companionship, mentorship—and
even competition and envy. During the program design process we need to offer points based
on both competition and collaboration. Most of us are inspired, and motivated, when we see
friends and colleagues who are accomplishing something extraordinary!

Scarcity and Impatience: And yes, wanting something “simply because it is extremely rare,
exclusive or immediately unattainable” is also a core driver. We have found that offering “bonus”
levels or quests when the “base” requirements are exceeded is an excellent way to motivate
program participants to dive deeper into the learning experience.

Unpredictability and Curiosity: The unpredictability and curiosity core driver is hard to
implement but a great motivator because the learner doesn’t know what is going to happen
next. As Yu-Kai Chou teaches us; “When something does not fall into your regular pattern
recognition cycles, your brain kicks into high gear and pays attention to the unexpected.”
Successful book authors and movie directors use this core drive to keep readers and audiences

Loss and Avoidance: Last, but definitely not least, is the “motivation to avoid something
negative from happening.” As digital badge program designers, we found that the best way to
get learners re-engaged in the program is to send them a push notification that they are near or
at the bottom of the leaderboard. This core driver works every time!

In summary, gamification is a lot more than points, badges and leaderboards! We need to
understand and use all eight of the core drivers of teaching and learning. And, even though the
book is 499 pages in length, it’s worth the time to read Actionable Gamification by Yu-Kai Chou.
He is an expert in how human-based program design techniques can dramatically improve
online teaching and learning.