Positive reinforcement and business systems

I wrote last week about how one of the key differences in the modern world of consumer apps, and the more traditional world of corporate business systems seems to be in the use of positive or negative reinforcement to try to get people to do the right things.

A non-computer example: in recent years there had been increasing use of electronic speed signs on the UK roadsides to try to reduce motorist speeding (ultimately to reduce down death and injury on the roads). This has been after more than a decade in the use of the fairly blunt negative reinforcement tool provided by speed (or safety) cameras that issue a fine to lawbreakers.

This new wave of road safety device offers either a mild rebuke (generally flashing a message like “Slow down” to cars approaching at greater than the permitted speed), or a good case of positive reinforcement, a sad face if you are speeding that turns into a smiling face if you are within the limit. A smiling, electronic face might not seen to be much of a “benefit” to the motorist, but given that facial recognition is something that seems to be so hardwired into us, this simple reward mechanism might be more effective that first logic might account for (I’m trying to found some evidence on that- if anyone can help, do let me know).

So how might such positive reinforcement be used with more impact in business systems scenarios? Well, first off I guess you need to assume that business systems don’t do much of this at the moment. I’ll write a bit more about this soon, but my view is that business systems have generally been built on a “Theory X” view of management, and that people are predisposed to do the wrong thing, and so the focus had been on trying to stop then doing the wrong thing rather than encouraging then to do the right… “Unexpected item in the bagging area” is a case in point. This, combined with a highly deterministic view born of taking production line approaches to the automation of white collar work, has led to often terribly demoralising user experiences.

So, if you are ready to make the mental leap to redesign a system on positive reinforcement principals, let’s take that bete noire of anyone who works in a professional services company – the timesheet system.

I’ve never met anyone who likes doing them, but timesheets are vital for any company that bills out its staff by the hour or day. Why they seen so disliked is unclear, but one of my hunches is that it tends to be done retrospectively and also tends to be done by people who are already working long hours, are having their time recorded at a level of detail that is quite intrusive, and that don’t get any extra reward for working the extra hours (I’ve had far fewer issue with contractors who are paid by the hour submitting their agency timesheets). With all that taken into account, asking someone to effectively take time of their own to fill in data that shows back to their employer how hard they’ve been working at the end of a long week is not exactly empathetic. That they will be bombarded with email hate (usually of the automated variety) if they don’t do it only makes matters worse.

So what woiuld a better system look like? Well, first of all, maybe it could acknowledge that people often will know what they will be doing at the beginning of a week, and that therefore tracking variances to the plan, rather than the actuals as you go along, might be a better approach. A tool that helps people to plan their time ahead, rather than report on the time they’ve spent might be of more benefit to the end user, and so therefore more likely to be used.

If you then can imagine a service that allows the user to confirm that they’ve done what they thought they were going to do, or easily change when plans change, then it has the potential to be motivating in the same way that ticking things off a to-do list is. Finally, adding a bit of “game” into the system – tracking progress towards the goal of a completed week of work over the course of the week – could add that bit more motivation. This last part I suggest with a bit of caution – I know that “gamification” runs the risk of gimmickry… but heck, let’s roll with it.

So, potentially, from a drudge task that people put off, timesheeting could be turned into a proactive planning tool and aide to getting people to track their own progress during the week. I’m not pretending that this is some sort of silver bullet – more just a way of illustrating how thinking about benefit to the user and positive reinforcement could allow something that is a drudge to become something less painful for all.

7 thoughts on “Positive reinforcement and business systems

  1. Totally agree that positive outcome software will create an appetite stimulus. Please can I now get paid much quicker for spending 4 hours filling and checking all my expenses system and processes:-)

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