Can World of Warcraft Help Build a Better Workforce?

If you’re good at leading people in online games, you’re good at doing it in the real world. At least that’s the theory posited in two studies, one by IBM last year and another, more recent one from Harvard. Both studies noted similarities between CEO skills and those displayed by in-game leaders. They also found that specific characteristics of those virtual worlds could “make leaders out of lemmings.”

While those studies looked at what it takes to lead groups within games, they didn’t focus on player-vs.-player interactions. If you believe business is warfare, then it’s worth studying which factors the winners have in common. That’s just what four researchers at the University of Michigan have done in a report published late last year, using data from Blizzard’s Worlds of Warcraft MMORPG.

In their study, the researchers looked at several variables that affect gameplay, including whether the server allowed widespread fighting amongst players, how populated the server was, and how the guild to which players belonged was structured. These environmental factors are critical: As the Harvard study noted, “Successful leadership in online games has less to do with the attributes of individual leaders than with the game environment, as created by the developer and enhanced by the gamers themselves.”

WoW is an excellent study environment for research into communities. For one thing, there are over 10 million subscribers playing the game. The client is also relatively open, making it possible to collect in-game data reliably. Finally, MMORPGs are filled with rankings, scorings and variables that affect gameplay, all of which offer opportunities for analysis.

The researchers combined data on who was winning fights with algorithms that analyze relationships and advanced visualization techniques. Using the resulting visualizations, they were able to speculate on several factors that may shape winning teams.

They concluded that closer teams scored better, and that certain environmental factors — such as relative server population and whether players’ guilds demanded significant time commitments — led, in turn, to these teams becoming closer.

In particular, they found that “players who frequently collaborate with other players in WoW may adopt better coordinating strategies” while “members of low-performing teams, since they are not part of large communities…may have not developed successful strategies for coordination.”

The study was not clear about other factors that may have given players an advantage. For example, raiding high-level game instances yields better equipment, improving hit rating and dodging ability that can give a fighter the upper hand.

The researchers had a vast amount of detailed information from which to draw their conclusions. But businesses may not be far behind. Electronic interactions provide a “breadcrumb trail” of how organizations tackled a problem, which can then be analyzed in ways that weren’t possible before. By applying this type of research to data from messaging analysis tools like Xobni and Xoopit, or instant messaging, organizations will ultimately identify which people and practices give them a competitive advantage, and which factors lead to success when dealing with specific kinds of problems.

Where online games have the edge today is in their control over environmental factors. Game designers can explicitly control the gameplay, encouraging players to attack monsters over one another, or to spend their time harvesting vs. solving quests. But company executives have a much harder time setting explicit rules — collaboration over mercenary attitudes, for example.

It’s clear that many of the skills people develop online today, such as through the use of instant messaging, avatars and shared environments, will help in the business world of tomorrow. Electronic interactions with distributed teams require different communications styles and leadership techniques. Teams that insist on frequent collaboration and become familiar with their tools will thrive, while occasional users with infrequent interactions will stumble.

As companies learn to harvest the vast amounts of data they have on employee behavior, it will become commonplace to analyze your workforce the same way you tweak an online marketing campaign. If you’re an information worker, get ready to be optimized.

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia.