Your company loves it when you learn a new skill, and will give you a badge to prove it.

A badge used to be a simple thing—an outward sign that the badge wearer, a Girl Scout, for example, had mastered a specific skill such as building a fire. It was proof, backed up by the badge grantor, that the Scout could perform the skill. Those simple cloth merit badges motivated Scouts to learn new skills and allowed them to communicate their expertise without being obnoxious braggarts.

Now that badges have gone digital, their uses have multiplied, serving two groups particularly well—learning providers and businesses that need to engage customers to survive and grow. Digital badges are gaining traction as ways to motivate and demonstrate learning, particularly at colleges and universities, but they are just as likely to be used by corporations for achieving business goals such as increasing a customer base and rewarding users for behavior that grows revenue. Companies have figured out that customers will do their marketing for
the price of a little recognition.

Digital badges are a staple of electronic games, where they represent achievement, confer status, and motivate deeper engagement in the game. The point of many digital game badges is to hook players on the game and give it staying power in the market.

Nongame sites use badges too. Stack Overload—a site where software engineers ask and answer arcane questions—uses badges to motivate and reward frequent users for good questions, useful answers, and other behavior that keeps the site lively and valuable.

JetBlue added point-earning digital badges to its TrueBlue loyalty program to reward profitable customer behavior such as booking flights, flying to particular destinations, purchasing from JetBlue's partners, and mentioning their JetBlue experiences on social media. TrueBlue members can compare their ranks relative to one another, based on numbers of badges and miles flown.

Paul Brown, a higher education doctoral candidate specializing in social media, has used his knowledge of social media to become number one on JetBlue's badges leaderboard. He's earned 81 badges by blogging and tweeting about the company. Brown's relationship with JetBlue is an example of how companies use technology to drive brand loyalty in a world full of choices, including customers' choices about how they interact.

Marketing's success with badges has provided some lessons to the talent development community about motivation and engagement. In addition to recognizing learners' efforts, some organizations now use badges to drive specific work behaviors, motivate more learning, evaluate employee performance, and screen job applicants. Learning organizations are borrowing such gaming tactics as awarding points and badges for completing learning modules and sharing useful information with fellow learners.

Motivating learning at Deloitte

Digital badges are a feature of the Deloitte Leadership Academy, an online learning environment for the company's leaders. The site is populated with rich content from top business schools, as well as videos, tests, and quizzes designed to align with users' career plans. Even so, Deloitte's leaders weren't using the site.

Badges were added to the site to motivate more use of its features, according to Jason Bender, a digital partner at Deloitte. "We found that by adding game-based reinforcement in the form of missions, badges, and leaderboards to the platform, users were more likely to complete the online training programs," he says, "and that lifts the quality of our leadership."

Using social tools, leaders at Deloitte can now interact by posting questions and answers about the site's content, "following" other users, and posting status updates. Since game-based features were added to the site, the number of learners returning to it daily and weekly has increased and course completion has sped up by 50 percent.

There are more than 200 badges on the Deloitte Leadership Academy site. Many recognize small steps such as completing orientation to the site and personalizing a homepage. Others recognize cumulative achievements such as the number of videos watched or the amount of information contributed and rated.

"The badges are built to encourage the questing and exploration that drives learning," says Bender. But the badges are not the complete answer to building learner engagement, he adds. "You must monitor, measure, and adapt the site continually to keep the learning process engaging. You must create value, not just points."

Recognizing the value of learning

In an effort to transform where and how learning is valued, the MacArthur Foundation and HASTAC teamed up with Mozilla to create Open Badges, a free, cross-platform system that allows users to depict their skills with badges that can be displayed on social media. Users of the Open Badges system can create, issue, and verify digital badges.

The Open Badges partners were "looking to build a standardized way we could recognize the education that happens everywhere," says Mark Surman, Mozilla's executive director. "Together we developed the Open Badges infrastructure—a badge interchange standard and a collection of open source software for issuing and sharing badges—to create one holistic view of an individual's learning, skills, and experience."

People can obtain Open Badges by mastering specific skills taught by badge issuers via online learning, or when peers, co-workers, or supervisors vouch for mastery of specific skills. Open Badges has issued more than 30,000 badges, many for hard-to-verify soft skills such as communication and teamwork. Others depict technical skills such as mastering Clean Coder or Media Maker.

Mozilla has created a technical standard for its badges that makes them portable to social networking sites, job sites, and other online locations. There also is a digital "backpack" where badge holders can collect, sort, and display their badges.

Another player in the digital badge world is Badgeville, whose cloud-based platform provides tools for personalizing users' experiences and rewarding desirable behavior. For example, Badgeville's customer service product helps customer service leaders measure, analyze, and reward key behaviors that reduce the time to handle requests using certain enterprise software. Badgeville's "reputation mechanics" use a person's achievements to unlock access to privileges. This helps create the "stickiness" or loyalty prized by marketers.

Colleges on board

Colleges and universities use digital badges to guide, motivate, document, and validate formal and informal learning, according to Educause Review Online. While a degree attests to a person's deep vertical knowledge, badges confirm skills arising from shorter, less formal learning opportunities such as internships, mentoring programs, and professional development seminars. As such, they can be more useful than grades in showing a student's actual competencies, and they can document continual learning throughout a career. Some people believe they also are better predictors of performance on the job.

The Educause article also notes that professional communities can use badges to identify new competency areas that are not yet supported by formal education or certification. And digital badges are replacing such recognition paraphernalia as ribbons, pins, and plaques at professional conferences.

Badges serve HR departments too by making it easy to locate experts for projects. Badges add a dimension to performance reviews, and make it possible to verify specific skills claimed by job applicants. They certify skills already learned and practiced.

The future of badges

In early 2014, Mozilla and the MacArthur Foundation launched the Badge Alliance to "oversee and guide the continued momentum of the open badge movement," explains Surman.

The Alliance will operate independently of Mozilla to bring together thought leaders, designers, technologists, and researchers to commit to supporting open badges on an ecosystem level. The alliance already has identified some critical issues, such as third-party endorsements of badges and shaping the evolution of the open standard for badges.

Two of its concerns that are of possible interest to the talent development community are recruiting the next generation of the workforce to use badges, and promoting the credibility of badges with employers. It also supports badges for educators and professional development practitioners.