World of Warcraft in the workplace

Note: This is the fifth part of a longer series on how social media is affecting management. You can find the earlier posts – The future of (knowledge) work, Knowledge Workers in the British Raj, The north-south divide and Working in Hollywood – and the final issue – Problems and the people who solve them – elsewhere on this blog.

What does our organization look like when the middle layers are removed? How does a team form and establish it’s goals in a world where there is no middle management to do it for them?

Companies find themselves caught between the conflicting needs of working smarter while keeping costs down. Creating a competitive edge means finding the high-value skills required to out think the competition, and they’re willing to pay a premium for the privilege. At the same time, an increasingly competitive market is pushing revenues down, creating a financial void that will most likely consume the margins and mid level management of many organization.

A new business dynamic is emerging, one which is much more fluid as it’s based on networks of organizations and high-value individuals – much like the industry model Hollywood stumbled on during the transition to television in the fifties. Companies in industries as diverse as automotive, banking, retail, and real estate are responding to the new recession mentality by focusing on their core competencies and value- add, driving these organizations to consolidate, rationalize and externalize supporting functions, as they rely on a growing ecosystem of partners to deliver everything from their go- to-market strategies through product development to manufacturing and fulfillment.

Slaying dragons

In 2010 something in the order of eleven and a half million people, broken into two factions, completed over sixteen million tasks every day without the aid of a bureaucracy, spending an average of twenty two hours a week dynamically forming teams and solving problems. How did they do it?

With a population greater than that of New York City, World of Warcraft provides us with an interesting case study of how to motivate and mobilize large groups of people. Management experts, such as Tom Peters, consider the ideal size of an organization to be around one hundred and fifty people, as beyond this size, knowing everybody in person becomes impossible. Above one hundred and fifty people intermediate layers of power and delegation begin to develop and companies enter the realm of complication. World of Warcraft seems to indicate that this doesn’t necessarily need to be the case.

Many organizations are struggling to successfully knit focused and effective teams from the incoherent mass of individuals both in and outside their organizations. Entire industries are migrating to an operating model which has more in common with the fluid and dynamic film industry in Hollywood, than they do with the 1800s railway companies from which they are derived. Companies are beginning to function like movie studios; externalizing supporting functions such as production and distribution to allow them to focus on identifying worthy stories in their genre of interest, or the problems they choose to focus on; and then blending internal management and guidance with external capabilities to create vehicles to exploit the opportunities they have identified, with highly skill free agents, producers and actors or knowledge workers and subject matter experts, bringing their unique world view which will draw together the threads of an engagement, taking it from the mundane and making it into something special.

World of Warcraft provides gamers with a platform that enables them to solve this problem, dynamically forming teams for a population of individuals. Leadership emerges organically, an attribute of the environments and context in which the people are acting, and lasts only as long as the task at hand before the team dissolves and the individuals find their way to new opportunities. World of Warcraft also provides the individuals with a career framework independent of any particular engagement or organization, empowering them to manage their own progression from defenseless cannon fodder to all powerful wizard (or warrior).

The concept of using elements of game play mechanics outside a formal game — known as gamification – is growing support outside the narrow confines of the game industry, this interest is, however, typically focused on the consumer space, and seen as a tool to encourage people to adopt applications or as a useful talent management tool to help develop leadership skills. Massively-multiplayer online role playing games{{1}} (MMORPG) seem to provide a grander opportunity by enabling us to create fluid and adaptable frameworks which allow both organizations and individuals to work together toward shared goals in the short term, whilst also providing them with the room to grow their skills in the longer term.

[[1]]Massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) is a genre of role-playing video games in which a very large number of players interact with one another within a virtual game world.[[1]]

The concepts behind World of Warcraft’s success have a long heritage, with roots reaching back to 1974 when Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) was first released. Originally designed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, D&D was derived from miniature wargames and is widely regarded as the beginning of modern role-playing games and the role-playing game industry.

Young geeks engaged in a D&D like role playing game in a scene from Steven Spielburg’s 1982 film, E.T.

Young geeks engaged in a D&D like role playing game in a scene from Steven Spielburg’s 1982 film, E.T.

D&D provided gamers with a framework to go on an adventure together by allowing them to create characters, virtual personas, . The game defined a set of professions (a Cleric, the Fighting man, and a Magic-User, in the first edition of the rules) and races (human, elf, dwarf, halfling{{2}} and gnome), established the mechanics of determining if a character was successful in their actions, and provided a system for individuals to measure the experience their character had accumulated, making them more skillful. Players could also tune their characters by tweaking the character’s physical attributes – strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom and charisma – as well as by acquiring virtual equipment and tools.

[[2]]Hobbits in all but name.[[2]]

Playing D&D is a multi-week, or multi-month, journey where a party of friends would work together to explore a land, engage in quests, solve puzzles, crawl through dungeons and slay dragons (and other mythological monsters). Over time the rules developed by adding new professions, new races and by building more sophisticated experience models, become more complex in the process. (Too complex for some though, who prefer the original, simpler, rules)

The D&D character sheet for Sam Wisewhiskers, a mouse thief created by Tony Diterlizzi.

The D&D character sheet for Sam Wisewhiskers, a mouse thief created by Tony Diterlizzi.

World of Warcraft used Dungeons and Dragons as a starting point, addressing on of the major challenges in playing the game: forming a party of suitable friends to go exploring. Blizzard Entertainment (the company which develops and supports the game) created an online environment – an entire virtual world – where individual can login, create a character and start to explore. Players can start out as individuals, but to advance rapidly to higher levels they soon find that they must participate in teams, called guilds, and embark on increasingly challenging quests. The game changes with the players’ actions and game developers add new levels of quests as players become more proficient. There are also no set rules for winning the game or for forming a guild.

World of Warcraft as seen from the outside world.

World of Warcraft as seen from the outside world.

Forming, storming, norming and performing

The quest teams in World of Warcraft form organically around the goal, with an initial few reaching out into their (social) network to find the individuals they need, the individuals focused on solving the types of problems they team expects to find on their journey. It’s not enough to identify a fighter or thief or supply chain expect, for example, as the characters skills need to be match to the expected challenges and the teams ways of working. The final team will pull in a diverse range of characters and skills: some are priests, some are warriors, others are magis, some have different skill levels, different expertise, different potions, and different abilities. The planning processes is spread across in-game forums, as well as a plethora of Internet forums and wikis outside the game. Leadership emerges organically, reflecting the group consensus of whom has the best chance of leading them to success. And finally, the players need to work together, in real time, to conduct the mission and achieve their goal.

The team formation processes deal with a number of significant challenges which also exist in the offline world. How to pick team members, weeding out the incompetent and fostering relationships with the competent. The games forces the team to determine – as a group – what additional skill sets are needed and available at any given time, as well as understanding how different people (with different personalities and styles) will work together. Planing a large raid or quest is also not a task that comes together easily, and leaders must identify the people willing to word toward the goal whilst providing members with enough notice of the team’s activities to enable them to fit the game into their schedule. For the team to reach its gaol, every team member needs to play their role while working together to adapt to changing circumstances.

If the team does fail to reach its goal, when the team must take a step back, reevaluate its plan and team structure, and come up with a strategy to avoid the problem next time round. Leadership also needs to deal with the reality of under performers. Sometimes they’re just bad players. Other times they want to do better but don’t know how, and need a little guidance. And when everything doesn’t go to plan it’s important to determine what when wrong, as well as highlighting what went right.

As in life, investing time in the team will result in the team improving. People also have lives outside of the game, just as they have lives outside of work, and balancing the conflicting demands of life, game and work means that situations arise when people can’t always be where they said they would be (while there should always be consequences for people who rarely live up to their commitments). The world that is World of Warcraft is also constant changing, forcing players to rely on each other and invent new tactics and techniques to succeed in the rapidly changing environment, forcing guild members into a mode of constant collaboration and invention.

World of Warcraft shows us the outline of a new approach to to forming, storming, norming and performing{{3}}. Clearly defined goals provide a nucleus which the team can form around, acting as a yardstick to measure the skills required as well as helping to establish what success looks like (including how each team member’s contribution will be measured). The skills that the character model articulates provides team leaders with a way of understanding each potential members strengths and weaknesses, their interest in the endeavor and the problems they solve. The challenge for organizations is to develop a game framework for themselves: a set of policies and rules which allow individuals to articulate the skills they have and the problems they’re interested in solving, and which enable experience to be apportioned after the engagement.

[[3]]Forming, storming, norming and performing is a model of group development developed by Bruce Tuckman in 1965, who maintained that these phases are all necessary and inevitable in order for the team to grow, to face up to challenges, to tackle problems, to find solutions, to plan work, and to deliver results.[[3]]

Different ways of working

In our increasingly diverse environment, we must often construct our teams with people who solve problems in different ways, and who have a range of different ways of learning and working. Differences in working styles between cohorts are even used to explain while one cohort should be more creative, innovative, productive or reliable than another.

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[[4]]Adapted from IBM report : “Driving Workforce Productivity by Enabling Social Connection “ (June 2009)[[4]]

Organizations struggle with incompatible working styles, with Gen Y’s desire for constant feedback and a Traditionalist’s favor of top-down command and control, with entire books being written on the topic.

Rather than a boat anchor, diverse teams – pulling in people from a broad range of backgrounds and age groups – can actually produce some of the most effective solutions, as Scott E. Page, author of The Difference{{5}}, found. Just as age is a poor indicator of an individuals ability to adapt to the changing environment, ago is also a poor factor in determining the working style an individual might favor or their ability to work with others who have a different style. In their book A New Culture of Learning{{6}}, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown describe two “hard-core gamers.” “Ambitious and risk-taking” Nick has “fast reflexes” when playing. Yet he enjoys working with his guild mate Becky who “relies on patience, careful strategy, and knowledge of the game.” What makes this even more fascinating is that Becky is Nick’s mother.

This is not the first time that personality has been seen as a factor in determining working styles. The nineties brought us tools such as Myers-Briggs{{7}} and FIRO{{8}} which enable us to measure our personalities and those of our employees. The hope was that a better understanding of interpersonal dynamics would promote a smoother and more productive work environment.

[[5]]Scott E. Page (2007), The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies, Princeton University Press.[[5]]
[[6]]Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011), A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, CreateSpace.[[6]]
[[7]]Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a psychometric questionnaire designed to measure psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions, which Myers and Briggs extrapolated from Jung’s writings in his book Psychological Types.[[7]]
[[8]]Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation (FIRO) is a theory of interpersonal relations, introduced by William Schutz in 1958.[[8]]

The Myers-Briggs types and their distribution across the population.

The Myers-Briggs types and their estimated frequency across the population. As you can see, the data suggest that those who prefer Sensing are more frequent in the population than those who prefer Intuition. Source: The Myers & Briggs Foundation.

The world is changing faster than ever and our skill sets have a shorter and shorter shelf life. In this environment the highly entailed, and highly trained specialist will find that their carefully guarded skills and ways of working will rapidly change from advantage to problem unless they are willing to adapt to the environment around them. Strategies which resist a constantly changing world are insufficient to keep up, and organizations need to embrace the diverse and organically formed teams that can enable them – as it does the guilds in World of Warcraft – to succeed in a rapidly changing environment.

Continued in Problems and the people who solve them.

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