The Swag Factor: Sell Process Improvement by Making It Fun

Ann All

My husband is broadly interested in technology but is not employed in IT. Thus he only reads my IT Business Edge content on a sporadic basis. He just happened to read an interview from last September (which concerned the IT infrastructure Library, of all things) that contained a statement from me that he found more than a little funny.


When Chris Pfauser, a principal consultant with Compass Management Consulting and author of a white paper titled "ITIL Benefits," mentioned that some IT organizations he had worked with enjoyed success in "marketing" the idea of ITIL to business users by handing out swag like mousepads, I responded:

Well, sure. If I get a free coffee mug, I'll pretty much go along with anything.

As you can imagine, my husband likes to pull that phrase from his extensive collection of "inside jokes" at odd moments.


IT organizations might scoff at handing out tchotkes. But those that try to inject some fun into projects are likely to enjoy a better rate of success. There's a growing sense that having fun at work can engage employees and keep them engaged. That sense is driving interest in gamification, creating online games based on such seemingly dry tasks as running a manufacturing operation.


Sophisticated games are great, but companies can get good results with far more low-tech efforts. Recently I interviewed Ian Gotts, founder and CEO of business process management provider Nimbus, and Nigel Kilpatrick, the company's SVP, Major Accounts Europe Nimbus Partners. Nimbus client Carphone Warehouse just earned a BPM Excellence Award in the "Leveraging BPM Technology" category from Gartner.


Carphone Warehouse creates standardized processes for everything from filling a copy machine with paper to activating a customer's new smartphone. As Kilpatrick explained, the company put its formidable marketing resources to work "selling" the process improvement to employees. He said:

One thing they did do was make it easy for employees to go and find information. It's important to deliver it in a format and style that's nice to look at. Carphone Warehouse clearly has a strong brand. They took their expertise and branded the content they delivered to end users. People often say, "Well it's a process project" and they deliver the content in EPC (event-driven process chain) or whatever it is, with yellow and blue boxes and symbols people can't understand, Carphone Warehouse brands it as "How2," they use a strong logo. Carphone Warehouse had t-shirts, they made it as important to employees as the launch of the iPhone. That level of selling it and branding it makes a huge difference.

When the initiative was launched to 1,000 call center agents, the lights were turned off and each agent got a plastic bag that said, "How To Is in the Bag." When the lights were turned on, the agents ripped open the bags and found 15 or 20 How2-branded little presents. Have employees adopted the systems? According to Kilpatrick, Carphone Warehouse gets 6.2 million hits a year on the Nimbus Control software that contains all of the standardized processes.


Gotts emphasized the importance of putting process, rather than technology, at the center of the effort. He said:

Contrast that with a $200 million SAP implementation no one uses, or a $50 million Siebel implementation where all the business users say, "Screw it, I'm going to use Salesforce and not even tell IT." It's a fundamental implementation issue associated with people going out and talking about process. They think it's an IT project. But it's a heart-to-mind business change. Until people get that, lots of these big Oracle and SAP projects will be black holes that people keep pouring money into them.

Process is important. Making process fun - or at least making it clear how it can improve the jobs of employees - will help increase the odds that process improvement efforts will succeed.


Not every company has the marketing resources of a Carphone Warehouse. But even small and resource-strapped companies can get pretty creative in selling initiatives to users. A good example is Texas' Cook Children's Health System, which promoted its ITIL initiative by hosting an off-site event with a race theme ("ITIL 500"), a catered lunch, games and an exhibit hall where each process had its own booth, complete with swag such as small calculators for financial management.

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