We’ve all heard about gamification, but a recent article in the Harvard Business Review is suggesting that businesses, particularly in the technology field, can learn a lot from toys as well. You could call it “toyification.”

“We’re already thinking critically about the impact of screen time on kids, and looking for ways that technology can help them learn and collaborate instead of cutting themselves off from others,” writes Alexandra Samuel. “Now we need to turn that same kind of critical attention to our own tools and work habits.”

Looking at it in the workplace the same framework as children’s toys can help address three major concerns about technology, Samuel writes:

  • Displacing face-to-face interaction and connection
  • Eroding our social and professional skills
  • Making us passive consumers instead of active creators and contributors

Noting that Lego’s goal is to use digital experiences to encourage physical ones, rather than supplant them, Samuel suggests looking at technology the same way for digital vs. in-person collaboration. “if they don’t help people work more effectively together offline as well as online, then our tools aren’t the right ones,” she writes. Instead of simply maximizing the amount of time one spends with an app, it should look for ways to encourage people to work together in person, she adds.

Similarly, if people are using devices during meetings, then make the devices part of the meeting, Samuel writes. “If employees want their computers open during meetings, use virtual document collaboration so that you can take collaborative notes and annotate documents in real time instead of waiting for someone to circulate meeting notes or hand out paper documents for feedback,” she suggests.

But developing new skills like this requires direction, as well as providing tools with multiple purposes. It’s the same way that educational and psychologist experts criticize parents for buying children toys dedicated for a specific purpose, and instead recommend that they help promote growth by buying “open ended” toys instead. However, that requires more work than simply handing the child the toy.

“All too often, parents use toys as babysitters,” writes Jenn Choi in Quartz. “Sit the kids down with something and walk away to check email or do the dishes. They expect the toy to engage their child to the point where the child is mesmerized. If we want to turn our toy purchases into educational investments, then we need to get involved and stay involved. We have to play with them.” Similarly, the IT department can’t just hand employees the “toy” of a new app or tool—they must model how to use the product.

Finally, instead of encouraging employees simply to read, re-post, and share content written by other people (ahem), Samuel suggests using tools that make it easier for employees to create content on their own. “By continually lowering the barriers to participation by encouraging people to like, favorite, or reshare rather than actually posting or commenting, we stream tech users away from active creation and towards passive viewing and barely active sharing,” she writes.

In training, for example, explore other ways of learning than simply broadcasting the information at employees. “Active learning can include anything that the students are doing with the presented course content to enhance their understanding of the topic,” writes the University of Florida Center for Instructional Technology & Training. These include online discussions/debates, group projects, concept mapping, role playing, content related games, problem solving, visual listing (e.g. Pros and Cons), and worksheets encouraging the application of new knowledge (equations, formulas, etc.).

Following this toyification trend, some companies have been working to make their products more toy-like to appeal to people who might be feeling overwhelmed. “A businessperson might take a call on a Star Wars R2-D2 Motorola Droid cell phone,” writes Amy Lynn Hess in her blog. Although taking business calls might not be a fun task, the toyification of the task-related products might make the tasks more palatable, and putting the fun back into the everyday might just be what our society needs, she adds.

Need more convincing? Look at the success of Apple, writes Christopher Noxon in his book Rejuvenile, which describes how adults are embracing their inner child. “Few companies have worked the tech-toy association as successfully as Apple, which rebounded from its mid-1990s slump by creating a product that directly challenged the popular image of a dark-shelled PC that sorts through deep reservoirs of code in a clumsy slog to produce spreadsheets or sales reports,” he writes. “Riding high on this triumph of toyification, Apple has gone on to infuse its entire product line with the whimsy, cheer, and suggestiveness of playthings.  Apple presents its products as simple on the surface, easy on the eye, friendly in function, and yet containing limitless possibilities. Its products are no mere devices, as any fervent Mac user will attest; they are portals to worlds of wonder.”

As they once said in Star Trek: “The more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play.” We couldn’t agree more.

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