Tech Insights: Operations vs. HR, or Why Old Techniques Still Have Value

Apr 8, 2014

I recently bumped into software aimed at call center operations.

Normally, that is outside my scope, however this software, Snowfly, was all about incentivizing workers using what we would now call gamification. In this sense the operations folks in call centers have developed a gamified solution to an HR need long before HR got hip to gamification.

In HR, the needs of managers and professionals often dominate our thinking, and what it takes to motivate managers can be quite different from motivating a call center worker.

The main lesson from this

Call centers have large numbers of low-paid people doing relatively repetitive work and the operations people running call centers have long been experimenting with ways to motivate them. There are things we can learn from them.

The main lesson is that while Dan Pink’s emphasis on autonomy, mastery and purpose is inspiring, the simple motivators we learned about in Psych 101 can have a big impact on performance in repetitive jobs.

Rewards should be frequent and immediate. So, for example, if you are rewarding attendance make it for a goal like “five days in a row,” not part of a year-end review.

And, just as in the decades-old experiments of B.F. Skinner, rewards with a variable payoff are more motivating than a fixed payoff. Having a chance to spin the wheel for a range of rewards works better than a fixed reward even if the average payoff is the same.

What is interesting

  • Sometimes, techniques that seem new have old roots. Gamification does not feel new to people in the call center industry. Snowfly’s Robert Cowen says, “Call centers have been doing this since the 70s.”
  • We can be overly sophisticated in our approach; a simple behaviorist approach to reward can work. Spin the wheel games can be fun.

Where the real value is

  • Pay attention to what works over long stretches of time. In HR, we may pay too much attention to the shiny new bauble instead of asking if we can find methods that have enduring value.
  • Call center operations became good at doing incentives through experimentation; this is true evidence-based management: trying something and testing to see if it works.
  • Recognize that HR’s value-add is not just in compliance or some abstract issue like building “human capital capability.” HR’s value also lies in gritty operational issues like getting new hires at a call center to come back after lunch on their first day. Call centers are a wonderful place for HR to add value because they are so tough and immediate.

Perhaps the big take-away is a little dose of humility. There are many great new ideas and technologies for professional and managerial jobs.

We might not view the grey-haired operations manager in a call center as knowing more about human motivation than we do; sometimes they do.

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