Are digital leaderboards complete waste of time?

Published on 10 January 2017 by Tomislav Rozman

Are modern digital leaderboards (such as LinkedIn's "How you rank for profile views" and ResearchGate's "Member stats") complete waste of time and contribute only to skewed self-image?

Does the gamification of the one’s self-worthiness in the digital world translate to a physical world? Does it contribute to business growth?

For the last few days, these and similar questions are occupying my mind.

Unconsciously, we all compare with the others and strive to be better. I am no exception to that. When I think I finally beat this ugly monster of comparison with the others, it raises one of its ugly heads and strikes again.

Lately, the comparison games blossom in the form of social media and their refined gamification strategies.

I admit, I feel good when people approve or compliment me. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the form of physical high-fives or digital likes, shares, comments or new connections. It really doesn’t matter if it’s in the physical or digital world. The warm pleasant feeling is the same.

It doesn’t matter if it’s in the form of physical high-fives or digital likes, shares, comments or new connections. The warm pleasant feeling is the same.

Do you remember the days of elementary school leaderboards? We have used the leaderboards for most clean teeth, best sportsmen in class, most read books …

The leaderboards concept is a great way to boost your own ego, but it’s worthiness beyond the comparison with others is questionable.

The longer I use the digital ego boosters, the more I question their usefulness and ability to influence the physical world.

What are ego-boosters?

Ego-booster is a tool that gives you a fake impression of your greatness. For example, a medal for being an employee of the month. What's the use of it? It boosts your ego, it gives you the temporary satisfaction. At the same time, it forces you to work more, better and longer. It tricks you into repeating the behaviour which was awarded.

Digital ego-booster is the same thing in the digital world. For example, ‘likes’, ‘shares’, ‘comments’. But let’s skip those simple ones and let’s look at more advanced ones.

LinkedIn Leaderboard

LinkedIn -> Show my profile -> How you rank for profile views

Note (Feb 2017): This functionality is not available anymore in the new LinkedIn UI. Similar functionality is offered by LinkedIn Social Selling Index.

I have caught myself checking the ranking of my LinkedIn profile more times that is healthy and necessary.

Every time I'm posting a new article, I'm checking if my position on the LinkedIn profile leaderboard improves. I'm happy when I climb up on the leaderboard and annoyed when my place is dropping.

How do you cope with that? How do you manage people, if you never managed people? How do you set-up business processes, if you never thought about, for example, customer journey or sales process? How do you pitch your idea and attract external (e.g. EU) funding? How do you… ?

But – I’m still unsure if this kind of leaderboard has any practical value at all.

For example, lately I have increased my profile views and the place on this leaderboard (top 3% of my connections). This position didn’t bring any useful leads. I haven’t met any new people in person because of it.

My conclusion is, your position on the LinkedIn leaderboard is correlated only with people’s curiosity. It causes no immediate useful results in the physical world. I haven't figured out what exactly puts you on top of this leaderboard. You should be a headhunter, write good articles or be a great networker to make it to the upper 10% and stay there.

Yu-Kai Chou says: "Many gamification professionals seem to believe that if you put points on something boring, add some badges, and provide a competitive leaderboard, that once boring product will automatically become exciting."

I fully agree on this one. While it is exciting to watch the position on the LI leaderboard, I still doubt about its usefulness.

Nevertheless, I'm still sure there are some sort of long-term effects which can not be directly measured.

Now, let's take a look at another example of the digital leaderboard - ResearchGate.

Researchgate Leaderboard

Researchgate -> Stats

ResearchGate is a social network for authors and researchers. It is a way to promote your work: articles, projects and similar.

Each time when I receive a message from Researchgate, which says that I am the most read author from my institution, I start to salivate like a Pavlov’s dog.

I receive this kind of messages almost daily from RG. These messages almost convinced me I’m that good. But -

I know I am not that great author of academic articles. I know some authors from the institution I’m affiliated with don’t even have a profile on RG. The number of reads of the articles (a.k.a Altmetrics) is also not correlated with more traditional metrics, like impact factor or citations. For example, one of my colleagues has far greater RG score (which approximately resembles the scientific excellence), but it has the lower number of article reads and downloads. Funny, isn’t it? Popularity is not always related to the academic impact.

This result (the position on the RG leaderboard) also doesn’t have any influence the reality directly. At least I'm not aware of any academic institution that would consider RG leaderboard as an important factor to assess the quality of their researchers.

In an utopic world, digital leaderboard could be the basis for a person's compensations or salaries.

But, if we want RG leaderboard to be useful, three preconditions must be met:

1. All authors from the institution must use it

2. Author’s profiles and published articles must be up-to-date

3. The institution should connect this leaderboard with their internal motivational and compensation mechanisms and processes.


So, what’s the usefulness of the digital ego-boosters a.k.a. digital leaderboards, such as LI and RG?

1. Leaderboards can be good motivators and reference point to compare yourself with the others in the same area, network, organisation, group. Which is good.

2. Leaderboards can also give you the feeling of fake self-worthiness, which is not that good.

3. Leaderboards sometimes do not reflect the reality because of the issues described above and most importantly:

Such leaderboards can give you an idea how to design your internal leaderboards based on process KPIs (Key Process Indicators).

Leaderboards (like LI and RG) show how you can use gamification mechanisms to motivate your employees to participate in healthy competitions using participant's intrinsic motivation.

Several providers of enterprise IT solutions already implement gamification mechanisms (such as leaderboards) into their products. (see gamified CRM systems such as CRM gamified or Microsoft CRM).

Interesting topic, right? I see the gamification as a natural complement to business process improvement initiatives, directly related to KPIs and measurements.

If you can't measure it (and show it off), you can't improve it, Right?

P.S.: Do you use some kind of a leaderboard at your workplace?

Further reading