Liz Kelly is still jazzed about the experience her company had participating in its first hackathon, an updated version of the classic brainstorming bashes favored by tech geeks. Hackathons were first developed by computer programmers as a forum for coming together, sharing ideas and intensely collaborating on software projects. Nowadays, the concept is gaining popularity globally with companies seeking solutions, ideas and new talent.
“It was amazing,” says the CEO and founder of Brilliant Ink, an engagement consultancy based in Oakland, Calif., and a sponsor of the event. “Hack the Experience,” which took place in San Francisco in February, drew almost 100 professionals eager to explore ways to improve employee engagement. It featured a panel of five judges and was underwritten by several corporate sponsors.
For five hours, teams of HR, communications and organizational development specialists “hacked” their way to new ideas about how to improve employee engagement. The teams were given background information, a PowerPoint template to record final results and carte blanche to think outside the box.
“Company reps were there to help, but the participants really didn’t need us,” Kelly says. “People really got into it, and the quality of the ideas that came out of it was really very impressive.”
The team that took top honors came up with the idea to develop Career Safari App, a mobile software tool intended to allow users to track their personal career goals.
Hacking Catches On
Kelly and a growing number of professionals in all types of organizations are discovering that hackathons are a way to tackle tough problems by putting together workers with different areas of expertise—both from within and outside the company. Some hackathons are more elaborate and involved, featuring sponsors, judges and prizes. Others are modest affairs that use whatever organizational resources are available. Once the province of computer programmers, hackathons are spreading into other disciplines.
“The principles can be applied outside of tech,” says Hesam Panahi, clinical assistant professor in the Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston. “Get a group of talented and motivated people together, focus on a particular problem and aim to solve that problem in a compressed, intense time frame.”
Bottom line: Hackathons, which can last a few hours to a few days, are idea generators and can be as varied as the people and purposes behind them.
“The greatest benefit of having a hackathon is you get surprised with the innovative things that you actually want to use in real life,” says Isaac Wong, vice president, platform architecture, at Medidata Solutions, a global provider of cloud-based solutions for clinical research in life sciences that is headquartered in New York City.
Wong says a recent Medidata hackathon—sometimes called simply a “hack”—involving about 50 employees took on the problem of gathering patient information. The result was an idea for a mobile app to increase a patient’s engagement in a clinical trial, during which a study participant’s blood pressure, respiration and other vitals are regularly measured.
How to Get Hacking
Throwing your first hackathon may be easier than you think. Experts say special software or equipment is usually unnecessary. Many hosts set up a cloud drive such as Dropbox or Google Drive to archive articles, stats and other background information. Some organizations allow employees to use personal hardware such as tablets and laptops to participate in company-sponsored competitions.
Hackathon veterans have the following advice for first-time hackathon organizers:
Do a pre-hack prep. Think about the issue you want to tackle or the ideas you are seeking. Do what makes sense for your company in terms of using available time and resources for planning and execution.
Select a location and date. Schedule your hackathon about two months in advance, keeping in mind participants’ work schedules and family obligations. It might be easier to start with a short hack rather than an overnight event.
Create the environment. Turn off phones. Put some distance between participants and the concerns of the day—which may mean isolating the group offsite if a suitable onsite location can’t be found. Be sure wireless Internet is available, along with plenty of outlets and extension cords.
Organize your helpers. The bigger your event, the more people you’ll need on your team. Events with more than 25 participants, for example, will need team members to solicit participants, recruit judges, organize the event and wrap things up.
Find balance. Try to come up with the right combination of structure and flexibility. You want to make sure the process allows every participant to contribute, and you don’t want to stifle anyone’s creativity.
Have fun. Don’t make it too stodgy. “Pizza, snacks and lots of caffeine are staples at hackathons,” Panahi says. “Make the event seem less like work and more like a great opportunity to work on something interesting outside of the traditional work setting.”
Foster diversity. Think about the various skills present in your organization, and recognize the value of interacting with colleagues from other departments. A hackathon may be the perfect time to network and test synergy with staff from across the organization.
Capture results. Capturing the action and results depends on the host, the venue and available resources. Some hacks feature the use of social media tools or copious note-taking on tablets and laptops. Others use online resources such as blogs or cloud drives, while still others go completely low-tech. “I’m a big fan of Post-it notes,” says David Mann, vice president of learning and internal communication for AAA Northern California, Nevada and Utah, who quips that his office is littered with them.
Share results. Sharing the results of a hackathon with your entire organization can be accomplished by posting presentations, notes, stats and other materials on the company website or by creating a report in PDF format for download.
Mann advocates putting viable elements of the hackathon into practice immediately.
“There’s some elegance in not sharing and just doing, and letting people feel the innovation,” he says. “This is less about the tools and more about the conversation and making it OK for people to explore new ideas.”
At a Campus Near You
Many organizations are also finding that hackathons held with students on college campuses can be effective recruiting tools. Students may be attracted by the company brand, the objective or the prizes (software, T-shirts or gift cards are examples). Often, organizations identify top talent in the process of conducting hackathons.
“Students who are the most creative are going to be recruited,” says Manny Contomanolis, associate vice president and director of the Office of Cooperative Education and Career Services at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in New York. The RIT campus has been the site of hackathons hosted by American Greetings, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Toyota. The forums give both employers and students valuable networking time and a chance to check out each other.
“The students are going to have some affinity because they understand the [company] culture, are involved in a project, use the products and are interacting with representatives,” Contomanolis says. “The company has some assessment of how the students perform and can see how they work with others.”
Think and Flex
HR professionals say what they appreciate most about hackathons is the flexible thinking that comes with conducting the events.
Mann relishes the progressive approaches to HR service delivery that have resulted from hackathons he’s been involved in and believes the events are a great way to approach old problems with new thinking.
“You have to suspend belief in the way things are done today and think about what could be a solution,” he says.
Gemma Reucroft, U.K. and Ireland HR director for Tunstall Healthcare in Yorkshire, U.K., agrees that hackathons require a break with traditional tactics.
“It’s about problem-solving, idea generation, and using teams to solve issues or challenges,” says Reucroft, who is also a writer, speaker and blogger. “A hackathon is essentially about collaboration.”
She says HR professionals should consider using the forums to focus on existing or new challenges that affect them, such as exploring information gleaned from employee exit interviews to reduce turnover.
Another way hackathons can prove useful, experts say, is by promoting employee cooperation, knowledge sharing and team building.
“They go beyond normal organizational structures and hierarchies,” Reucroft says.
Contomanolis says having employees work with different colleagues stimulates the kind of cooperation “that’s advantageous to any organization.”
And because hackathons shine a spotlight on employees and their ideas, they can provide a substantive form of employee recognition, experts say.
“There’s significant value in giving employees the opportunity to build something they believe matters,” Panahi says.
Reucroft adds that hackathons are natural engagement boosters because they are structured to focus on all employees’ viewpoints—not just the bosses’.
“It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that the senior teams have all the ideas and solutions,” she says. “Employees often have all sorts of ideas but don’t know how to get them off the ground, or don’t feel sufficiently empowered or confident to do so. A hackathon sends a clear signal that organizations want to hear from everyone.”
Michael A. Tucker is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.