How serious gaming can help HR to increase awareness on data & analytics

Serious Gaming
Illustration: Studio Fee Overbeeke

Data and analytics are gaining a crucial role within HR departments in various companies. But although this seems to be a technology trend, it is all about the human factor. Therefore employee behaviour is a key success factor for data driven decision making. And where humans come in to play, games should be involved. So how can serious gaming play a role to create awareness, willingness for working with a fact based mindset?

This article is based on  interviews with three leaders in HR analytics. Patrick Coolen  (People Analytics Leader at ABN Amro), Mircea-Stefan Glavici (People Analytics Expert at Merck Group) and Tom O’Connor (Senior Manager, People Analytics at Capital One). They share their insights on the topic and their experience with the HR analytics serious game ‘Analysis Paralysis’.

HR analytics is here to stay

Analytics support HR in one of their key reasons for existence: to provide the best value proposition for employees. The term value proposition was commonly used at customer experience departments. O’Connor: “Data-driven companies are often founded on the application of data to drive differentiated value in their product offerings and services. As they grow into sizeable corporations, it is a natural sequitur to apply these foundations to functional areas. HR is one of the best opportunities for this given the similarities between the customer and employee experience.” Using data to support business decisions in the whole company is growing a common practice, however this requires that HR professionals acquire and apply new skills.

This is further reinforced by the fact nowadays there is so much data, there is no excuse not to bring it to the table. Glavici: “In order to stay relevant in discussions internally, but also in the larger perspective as an employer you are expected to back up your decisions with facts.” As an employer you should go miles to understand your workforce and use these insights to improve your company. Coolen: “Analytics help you to identify (un)certainties on which you build your strategic decision making. This should justify spending at least a small team, or larger, to improve your organisation in this manner.”

So is it just technology and governance to do it right or is there more involved?

Two crucial skills that determine the success when working with data & analytics

Organising employee experience teams, HR analytics departments, machine learning capabilities and hiring people analytics professionals are not enough. It is key that your HR professionals start working with a fact based mindset. Coolen: “Although ‘data savviness’  helps not to scare people off from using data samples, the two real skills involved are critical thinking and problem solving.”

Problem solving

Problem solving means that you start with a problem, split it into small pieces and use data to solve them. How obvious this might be, it is a basic behaviour that is often missing. Glavici: “People tend to start with the data and try to find an explanation for it. But you must have a problem to solve.” O’Connor: “Starting with data before fully defining and fleshing out a problem creates the risk of solving for the wrong thing, or worse, cherry-picking data only to validate one’s own hypotheses regardless of the truth, also known as confirmation bias.”

Critical thinking

Preventing this bias requires the second most important skill: critical thinking. O’Connor:It’s not enough to provide people with as much data as possible. You must also empower consumers of data to think critically about what the data is (or is not) saying, and to use it to disprove hypotheses as well as prove them.”

Coolen:People should always look for opportunities to apply a data driven approach, but must remain critical about what questions they ask and what sources are useful. With some clever tweaking any data sample can tell the story you want.”

Getting people to know these opportunities and pitfalls of  working with data is one of the main learning goals of the serious game Analysis Paralysis.

Serious Gaming makes natural behaviour visible

So how do you create a game experience which incites natural behaviour in a realistic setting? In serious escape game Analysis Paralysis the players step into the shoes of a crisis team that needs to help the CEO of BrightBase. Rumours in the press state that a lot of managers are leaving this company and that its stability is under thread. In 45 minutes the CEO needs to give a statement to the press and it’s up to the players to provide a fact based explanation in time. Each of the CEO’s board members have their own preferred hypothesis to disprove and the room is full of data sources to work with. Only with teamwork, problem solving skills and a critical mindset can players find the right conclusion in time.

Escape room

After a story driven introduction video the players find themselves in an escape room with various data sources. Some are valid, but others contain typical pitfalls when it comes to analysing and interpreting data. Some data sources are hidden in the room and need to be found, deciphered or unlocked. Combining the correct data sources leads to a series of codes which players need to progress in the game room. Using the insights they gather the players then need to write up a fact based statement and present this to the CEO in time so that he can give a proper explanation at the press conference. Time pressure is a constant factor which will seduce the players to draw quick conclusions on false hypotheses and invalid data sources instead of using a data driven mindset. Reflecting on both these pitfalls and the behaviour they cause is a key learning of the game.

Learning in a fun way

The game was first designed with Abn Amro NV in cooperation with Ingrid Bienefelt and Patrick Coolen. After rolling out the game within their company their willingness to share knowledge led to a white label version that is open to use for other companies as well. Like many serious games Analysis Paralysis provides players with a fictional (but real) world where it is safe to experiment and learn in a fun and engaging way.

Coolen: “The game contains a three stage mental journey which reflects the way we onboard our HR professionals in the analytics discipline: awareness, willingness and ability.” The game makes players aware on how easy it is to start working with data, even though you are new to it. Glavici: “It is a simple and personal way to engage people and connect them to the subject.”

Play, fail, learn

Providing this low risk and fun introduction with the topic increases the willingness to start applying this new skillset in real life. O’Connor: “The biggest surprise is how quickly we’ve seen players apply the learnings from the game to their work. Our hope was for the game to increase awareness and some proficiency around these skills in order to promote further development and practice, but we’re seeing real-life examples of application right away in some cases.”

Using a game means setting your players up for failure. This seems odd since nowadays a good user experience means reducing friction and lowering barriers. But with gaming the engagement is created by the fact that players are really challenged, have the opportunity to fail and feel the satisfaction of finally achieving their goal after these hardships.

Glavici: “The game provides a funny context to fail and learn from it.” It showed that experimenting through gaming provides players with an experience where they learn the necessity of these core behaviours when it comes to analytics. Players are confronted with false statements, manipulated data sources, and pitfalls for some common assumptions and biases. Coolen: “The games time element mimics real life pressure in which people forget to think critically which is normally not so hard for them.”

These game experiences are reinforced by a good debriefing afterwards where players get to reflect on what influenced their behaviour. Apart from bringing the lessons home it is a good opportunity to create a connection with the companies bigger picture.

Human behaviour is the key success factor when it comes to HR analytics

The interviewees opinions and their experiences with the game reveal an interesting truth. That the most important skills to work with a fact based mindset require no data at all. The success factors to get HR to act more data driven involve creating awareness for the skills involved and to spot opportunities to engage problems with data. To trigger the willingness to start experimenting, to play with data, to fail and learn. And by supporting HR’s ability, both on a personal and a company level,  to work fact based and make the right decisions to increase the employee experience. And that is crucial for an employer to stay relevant.




The game referred to in this article is ‘Analysis Paralysis’. It provides (HR) employees with a fun and engaging way to create awareness on working with a fact based mindset. The game is available as both a physical escape room and as a digital online game. It has been used by various global operating companies such as Abn Amro NV, Merck Group, KPN, Henkel, General Electric, Capital One, Syngenta and more. Contact to learn more.

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