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Playing to win

By Susan Smith | July 7, 2014
Playing to win

As companies seek better ways to train their staff, entrepreneur Carol Leaman is revolutionizing the process.

The challenge

Leaman is President and CEO of Waterloo, Ont.-based Axonify Inc., her fourth start-up, whose software platform uses gamification and neuroscience to motivate employees to retain what they learn. 

Forget old-school seminars where staff sit on folding chairs watching a slide show – and come away remembering almost nothing. Accessible on any Web-connected device, Axonify’s e-learning tools let them play brainteaser games consisting of multiple-choice questions.

“Retrieval practice is the act of asking simple questions of learners multiple times to get them to retrieve the information repeatedly,” Leaman says of her method. “Being forced to recall information solidifies the neural pathways in the brain and actually creates memory.” 

In 2011, Leaman bought a rudimentary version of Axonify’s current software from a Kitchener, Ont., marketing firm that had developed it to help U.S. auto parts retailer and service chain Pep Boys: Manny, Moe & Jack curb employee theft. Pep Boys encouraged staff to answer questions such as: What should you do if you suspect another employee of stealing? What kind of rewards does the company give for reporting theft?

The program, which workers accessed voluntarily whenever they had a few minutes, gave points and prizes for correct answers. It worked because it reminded them what to do if they caught someone stealing and acted as a deterrent by putting potential thieves on notice. Pep Boys saw “inventory shrink” fall by 55 per cent, leading to about $20-million in annual savings. “They became believers,” Leaman recalls. “I listened to the story and I thought, ‘If they have those issues, others must have those issues.’” 

The strategy

Having sold data analytics service PostRank Inc. to Google in 2011, Leaman had a strong entrepreneurial track record. That helped her raise $5-million in venture capital from Canadian and U.S. backers to assess the e-learning market and overhaul the platform. Under the name Axonify, Leaman and her team redesigned it to serve more users, make adding new games easy and allowing customers to tackle a wide range of problems.

Workplace injury prevention is one hot area. Sample questions: What do you do when something is too heavy to lift? Where can you get help with something that’s too high to reach? Other applications for the cloud-based program include helping salespeople digest and remember rapidly changing product specs. 

The more complicated the information, the more retention matters – and that’s where cognitive neuroscience comes in. Axonify is collaborating with York University’s Faculty of Health and the Rotman Research Institute at the University of Toronto’s Baycrest Health Sciences centre to better understand how the brain absorbs and retains information.

“If you repeat something to someone up to five times in 30 days, his or her ability to remember that piece of information long-term is greater than 90 per cent,” Leaman explains.

Waiting longer before repeating a question can also help improve retention. “The idea is trying to grow the spacing between each iteration to make it a little bit harder for the person to remember the answer,” Leaman says. “It challenges the brain and makes those neural pathways just that much more solid.” 

The results 

Axonify now has 32 employees and some 30 clients, most of them global brands. They include fashion house Burberry Group Plc, chocolate maker The Hershey Company, pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson Services, Inc., Toys“R”Us, Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Over a six-month pilot period in 2012, Wal-Mart decreased reportable safety-related incidents at eight distribution centres by 54 per cent. 

Axonify lets clients choose from a basket of games; they can turn existing learning content such as videos and written material into question modules on specific topics. The company also has four instructional designers on staff who create questions out of existing materials at clients’ request.

The future

Axonify has an ongoing relationship with the Rotman institute whereby the company delivers anonymized data that provides insight into how to optimize its product to improve retention and participation, and to make predictions about behaviour that might be important to its customers.  

“Customers who are using the platform to reinforce product and pricing information are finding significant differences in the levels of knowledge retention of employees who use Axonify and those who don’t,” Leaman says. “This has a direct correlation to their performance on the job.” 

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