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Assurant Hits 'Play' for Painless Learning

June 22, 2009
Related Topics: Career Development, Basic Skills Training, Training Technology, Employee Career Development, Featured Article
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Executives traditionally furrow their brows at the mere mention of the idea that work should contain elements of fun. The no-nonsense attitude stems from companies’ bottom-line focus, but it can also make employees dread their jobs instead of loving them. That tension gets ratcheted up during an economic trough.

What might happen if a company took steps to integrate fun exercises into its employee learning?

That was the question posed by top executives at Assurant Employee Benefits. The Kansas City, Missouri-based subsidiary of health insurer Assurant Inc. provides group benefits to employers and brokers.

Anticipating the need to make training more accessible and relevant, the 2,100-employee company is rolling out customized video games and encouraging employees to play them as often as possible. The learning content tackles weighty issues such as Assurant’s financial strategies and the impact that individual employees have on success.

Assurant launched the gaming suite, “It’s Your Business,” in 2007. It arose as part of the company’s strategic goal to boost sales by 20 percent by 2010. Hitting that target required employees to gain a deeper understanding of the complex insurance business, including the legal requirements of maintaining minimum cash reserves, the role of intermediaries, and the momentous changes afoot for the U.S. health care system.

    Making such dry yet critical material interesting necessitated some creative thinking. The goal was to provide financial education with a “cool factor” to overcome resistance and get employees excited about the program, says Sylvia Wagner, senior vice president of human resources.

There are no restrictions on how often employees can play the games, which can be accessed and replayed on desktop computers. Employees are permitted to repeat each module to boost their scores. However, the quizzes and tests don’t repeat exactly, so participants have to be able to answer an ever-changing list of questions about the complexities of Assurant Employee Benefits’ business.

Repeating the games also lets them strengthen areas in which they’re weak, Wagner says. “We wanted the learning to be fun and interactive—something that people want to do, rather than something they feel they have to do,” she says.

Assurant maintains an online “leader board” to track top scorers in each game. And people pay attention to it.

“I’m one of those who are guilty of being competitive. I’ve been with the company about 10 years, so I felt like I should have a perfect score,” says Michelle Elam, an employee benefits advisor in Assurant’s Dallas office.

Although perfection remains elusive, Elam did earn the title of top scorer in the Dallas office by repeating “Velocity,” a game that tests knowledge of the financial metrics used to gauge the success of Assurant’s executive strategies. Elam says the game helped ease her transition to sales after leaving the corporate office a couple years ago. “That game was very educational for me,” she says.

The most popular game is an online version of “Hangman.” It depicts a cartoonish CEO tethered tenuously to a hot-air balloon. Participants answer a series of questions. Each time an incorrect answer is given, one of the strings attached to the balloon snaps. If too many incorrect answers are supplied, the CEO eventually comes crashing down. The game’s entertainment value contains a serious message for individual employees: Namely, failure to execute their jobs could have devastating implications for customers.

Video games supplement conventional training materials in workshops and required readings; they do not replace them. Assurant has been unveiling two new games every quarter. The challenge lies in coming up with content that cuts across generational boundaries. Baby boomers make up 38 percent of Assurant Employee Benefits’ 2,100 employees, with 28- to 43-year-olds—also known as Generation X—accounting for nearly 57 percent of its workforce. Less than 5 percent of employees are younger than 27.

“We didn’t pull in the traditional group of trainers to do this. We instead pulled in a bunch of people that are representative of our organization” to help design the video game content, says Joyce Richards, Assurant’s vice president of internal communications.

Richards and Wagner are part of a six-member project team that uses employee input to develop each game. Although the ideas for the games are created internally, Assurant did hire Kansas City-based Propaganda3, an interactive production studio, to animate the content and make it visually interesting. Richards says each game takes about a month from conception to implementation.

The video format appeals to Jana Duca, who joined Assurant’s dental-claims division in California last year. Says Duca: “Some of the companies I worked for had online training and quizzes, but never in this format. This is more like a fun little Internet game that you’d play with your friends,” Duca says.

Does all this fun lead to improved performance? Wagner says Assurant isn’t “dogmatic” about measuring the impact of games-based learning. Although pre- and post-tests were considered, Assurant’s senior management decided “it was more a leap of faith” that video games would help employees acquire deeper business and financial knowledge, Wagner says.

Business-based learning games have been used by European companies for a while, but the concept is beginning to seize the imagination of corporate America. BTS Inc., a Swedish gaming vendor with U.S. headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, this year launched its first business-game tournament for U.S.-based companies. Several hundred companies are expected to participate, says Rommin Adl, the executive vice president of BTS USA Inc., although he declined to name specific companies. (Assurant is not among the participants in BTS’ competitions, company executive say.)

In BTS’ 2008 global competition, the first-place winner was DB Schenker Poland, second place went to Accenture Spain, and third place went to SKF Austria.

“The teams that participated in the internal rounds, and specifically ones that reached the international tournament, found the tournament was a flexible and innovative way [for people] to improve their managerial capabilities and strategic thinking, and a fantastic opportunity to have a global view of our company as a whole,” says María José Sobrinos, the HR director for Accenture Spain.

BTS, which provides simulation tools and consulting services, has run similar tournaments involving global companies since 1999. Last year’s event included teams from more than 900 companies, including U.S. companies with global operations. Adl says gaming offers a low-cost way for organizations to deliver learning that is interesting and relevant.

“It provides employees with a broader perspective on how different lines of business interact to create value for the company,” Adl says.

In a survey last year, the Entertainment Software Association in Washington, D.C., found that 70 percent of major employers use interactive games to educate workers. Nearly 80 percent of firms reportedly plan to begin doing so within five years. The survey included responses from of 150 large companies and nonprofits in the U.S.

Some organizations use interactive business games to re-energize staid e-learning programs, “which can be as exciting as watching paint dry,” says T.J. Keitt, an analyst with Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Forrester Research Inc. Nonetheless, there are drawbacks, including the cost of purchasing games from training vendors. Keitt estimates the cost at $300,000 to $500,000, depending on the complexity of the tool and the depth of the learning content. Most of the cost is for interactive software used to power the games, which ranges from low end to the most sophisticated on the market, Keitt says.

As a consequence, Keitt says video tools remain the province of larger organizations that have bigger training budgets, including Fortune 500 companies and some government agencies. Setting realistic expectations for what employees will achieve with the games is equally important, and it’s an area many companies fail to take into account.

“It’s important for companies to know what they want to accomplish. They need a clear set of metrics to make sure that the lessons people learn are carried out at the other end,” Keitt says.

Assurant Employee Benefits employees, meanwhile, are buzzing about the new video tools. Wagner says other business units within Assurant have inquired about the games and expressed interest in launching their own suite of video learning tools.

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