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The Role of Incentives in Learning (Hint: Read to the end to get a reward!)

One of the little absurdities of human nature that I’ve always found fascinating is how easily we allow our actions and priorities to be shaped by rewards and incentives that are not, when you think about them, very rewarding or incentivizing.

I was recently reminded of this rule while walking through the baggage claim section of the airport in Greensboro, North Carolina. Every fifty yards or so, I’d pass one of those baggage cart stations where you can rent a cart for a few dollars to trundle your luggage to your car. Each of these stations was nicely stocked with carts.

As I passed onwards to the parking lot, however, where one might assume I would find dozens of previously-used carts arrayed haphazardly among the rows of cars, there was not a single cart to be seen. Instead, each person who had rented one had hauled their luggage two or three hundred yards to their car, and then magically turned right around and taken their cart two or three hundred yards back to the baggage claim.baggage cart return at the airport

What I was observing was not a case of spontaneous neighborliness and community spirit among the fine citizens of Greensboro (though they were certainly a courteous enough bunch). Instead, it was an example of human beings cheerily accepting an inconvenience, all to collect on a seemingly minuscule reward. In this case, returning the carts to their stations garnered each person a cash prize of… 50 cents.

While walking down the sidewalk, many of us would not go more than a few feet out of our way to pick up such a sum, and yet the advance knowledge among travelers that the reward exists has relieved airports across the country of the need to employ cart returners, such as grocery stores employ. Those 50 cents become a goal that people get into their minds, and they will surmount a not inconsiderable inconvenience in order to attain it.

I bring this story up because it illustrates a principle that learning professionals are often loath to admit – incentives and rewards (and not even necessarily tangible ones) for completing tasks work. We often resist this fact – after all, bribing people to complete their training doesn’t seem to fit with the nobleness of a profession built around imparting knowledge – but it is nonetheless true. Examples abound in the world of social learning; some of the best include Wikipedia, which has grown to over four million English articles written entirely by volunteers, and Foursquare, the popular “check-in” social media application for mobile devices.

In both cases, the reward that motivates participation is nothing more than simple recognition.  In Foursquare, this comes through earning badges or becoming the mayor of a certain location (like your neighborhood pizza shop) by being the person who most frequently checks in at that shop in the prior two months.  While occasionally these prizes will be accompanied by a gift of actual value (a slice of free sausage pizza, Mr. Mayor?), in general they mean nothing whatsoever.  Yet millions of people have tried very hard to secure them, and will continue to do so.

The same thing goes for Wikipedia.  While on the surface the site might seem like the purest expression of selfless sacrifice in the name of greater knowledge, the truth is that once again those authors who contribute the most are motivated by recognition.  In Wikipedia, it comes in the form of comparing edit counts, number of featured articles worked on, and “barnstars,” a uniquely-Wikipedian award system.

A sample of Wikipedia Barnstars

A sample of Wikipedia Barnstars

 

Luckily for the Instructional Design professional, these same principals of human nature are readily adaptable to the corporate training world.  Some of the most popular training at many Fortune 500 companies these days revolves around incentives.  Deloitte has instituted the use of virtual badges through its Deloitte Leadership Academy, and users can unlock more complex training once basic courses are completed.  SAP has gone so far as to incentivize the creation of incentives, offering prizes to employees who come up with ways to make process work more competitive and engaging.  More generally, sales team training plays particularly well with the incentive model – it’s a natural fit for competitive, bonus-oriented individuals.

So if your training needs a little extra shot of something to get your workforce engaged, don’t be afraid to throw in some hand-outs, badges, barnstars, gold stars… whatever.  It works!

 

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When I'm not busy helping to change the face of corporate learning, I like to train with the Dashe & Thomson company bike team, travel and read.

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