All In The Game

On July 8, 2011, in HRExaminer, John Sumser, by John Sumser

Marriott Facebook Employer Branding App
Marriott’s online game is a turning point. The fact that a company would find it interesting to deploy a game for the exclusive purpose of employment branding tells you everything. The entire question of who makes and delivers software and for what purpose has radically changed.

Welcome to the world of apps.

I spoke at length with David Kippen (of Evviva Brands). Kippen and his team ran the employment branding project (Susan Strayer was the Evviva team’s sponsoring client). The project that resulted in the hotel simulation game on Facebook began as an intense exploration of the employment brand problem at Marriott.

The hotel chain has a broad range of brands and operations in most of the world’s cultures with particularly big operations in the Pacific Rim, China, India and Europe. Marriott is one of the most completely global companies in the world. They offer culturally nuanced hospitality everywhere you can imagine.

Building a global employment brand is a question of labor requirements and audiences. The people who do the work in hotels varies by culture. The hoteliers and their housekeeping staffs vary widely from culture to culture. In many places, the people who are likely to be the workforce have no experience in a hotel and no idea of what to expect.

That’s where the game story really starts.

Evviva’s process for building an employment brand involves ethnography. Wikipedia refers to ethnography as the science of contextualization. In plain English, ethnography means understanding your audience before trying to communicate with them. It’s research intensive and a little difficult to forecast when breakthroughs will happen.

(The ethnographic method is used across a range of different disciplines, primarily by anthropologists (Evviva has a polished method developed by their in-house anthropologist) but also frequently by sociologists. Cultural studies, economics, social work, education, ethnomusicology, folklore, geography, history, linguistics, communication studies, performance studies, psychology, usability and criminology are other fields which have made use of ethnography.)

Kippen says the point of using ethnography is to enable the researcher to “walk a mile in the shoes of the people they’re trying to understand.” “Focus groups can be an excellent way to get a superficial understanding. But you can’t bring your clients real value without digging deeper.”

Being a consultant of any kind for a hospitality company means good traveling. As Kippen tells it, he was looking out from the balcony of his hotel room in an Indian resort (as in good traveling but lots of miles). As he looked out at the beach, he saw a small group of people outside of the hotel proper (Indian hotels are all high security places since the bombings). The crowd was looking up at the hotel building.

Kippen asked one of his Indian colleagues what they were doing. “They are really curious about what goes on in here.” Kippen made his way through the various security measures and started exploring the crowd. One of the most interesting things about Evviva’s methodology is that they search for things that are ‘moderately interesting’. If it had been a huge crowd, anyone could have spotted it. Evviva specializes in exploring the little details that build connection and intimacy.

Kippen says, “when you see mildly curious things you should investigate and seek to understand because they’re often the portal to really important insights.”

Over the next couple of weeks, he discovered that the kind of young people who might work in the hotel travel from the countryside to the cities. The work to have enough money to spend an additional six or eight hours a day using facebook and other social media to network for work. Much of the networking begins with social games like Farmville. Once you’ve interacted with someone in a game, you can network to other things. It’s a long and involved process.

These were potential kitchen managers and the kinds of service worker that Marriott needs to survive.

The other problem Kippen discovered was that the hotel industry was perceived as not intellectually challenging and low status. As he began to really understand the potential workforce, the problem became clear. (get it? this is ethnography.)

In a nutshell, the problem was figuring out how to reach social gamers who were networking for work through games while helping elevate the status of the jobs that needed to be filled.

And so, an ethnography component of an employment branding problem led to the creation of a game that simulates the decision making required in a hotel kitchen. The goal of the game in the Indian marketplace was to help get the right-fit talent to see themselves inside the hotel in a marketplace where the security precautions made that difficult. As such, there’s a local effect to the game that’s exceptionally important in an Indian context–even though it works well everywhere.

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