by Alvin Sim
Hackathons are on the rise according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) which has been tracking the development of this worldwide trend ever since the first hackathon was held in 2010. 4 years later, 60 events were recorded in their growing database.
1. What is a Hackathon?
A Hackathon is an event, typically lasting several hours or days, in which a group of students and young professionals with different backgrounds come together, form teams around a problem or an idea, and collaboratively build a unique solution from scratch. Typically refers to innovation jams for tech start-ups, the term “hackathon” is becoming a fashionable word in corporate learning over recent years to inspire innovation and transformation.
2. Hackathon in the Pharmaceutical Industry
While working on a learning project for a pharmaceutical company, I read up on the hackathons in the client’s industry. Almost every top pharmaceutical company runs their own hackathons to crowdsource ideas from within or outside the organization:
- UCB initiated the “Hack Epilepsy” that brought together developers, designers and digital experts, along with healthcare providers and patients to imagine new ways of applying digital technologies that can make a real difference for the epilepsy community.
- Novartis organized the “Skin Hack” to bring a wide range of experts, makers and creative people to think about innovative ideas and technologies to help people suffering from Psoriasis.
- Roche Global IT Solutions ran the “Code4Life” to get teams to work on work on a project from a charity initiative called INTEGRACJA.
- Pfizer Ireland hosted a hackathon to look for innovative ways to manage inflammatory bowel disease.
- Sanofi hosted the Strasbourg Hackathon that saw designers, developers, healthcare professionals, patients, lawyers, entrepreneurs come together to imagine the health of the future.
- Merck & Co coordinated Merck Hackathon where student participants collaborated with fellow students as well as the experts from across Merck’s global organization during the two-day event to invent, innovate and connect with their products and services to solve unique challenges.
- GlaxoSmithKline organized the Horlicks Hack 4 Fun for participants to build games for children of the age of 7-14 years with milk as the central theme as well as integrating the Horlicks brand integrated into the game.
This is not an exhaustive list but I think these examples are enough to suggest that hackathons are widely accepted by large organizations and not just by tech startups.
3. Benefits of Hackathon
Traditional corporate innovation initiatives usually take up much time, cost and other resources from business units to form steering committees and innovation teams in order to ‘drive’ innovation in an organization. Whereas the time limit in a hackathon forces participants to distill their visionary ideas down to actionable solutions. As a tool to stimulate creativity for problem-solving, the cost of failure is lower than traditional approaches.
b. Crowdsourcing Business Ideas & Solutions
Let us say you have identified a big market insight and the next big thing. A couple of players have already entered the market and begun the disruption. Now you want to enter the space as well. A typical action is to get the R&D or product team to come with an idea for the product. This will take at least 6 months for research and prototyping.
Alternatively, you can conduct a hackathon for ideas and prototypes. Choose the best ideas and prototypes to take it forward with your R&D or product team. This not only shortens the innovation cycle, you also learn from the hackathon participants and from the experience.
c. Employee Engagement
Facebook conducts one Hackathon per quarter and has done over 50 major hackathons and 80 small events around the world. What’s amazing is that many of the Facebook products created at the hackathon end up being rolled out to customers or it becomes an internal tool within weeks. The LIKE button, Timeline, and Chat were all created at FB's internal hackathons. Besides having that sense of accomplishment to see ideas being deployed, employees also picked up new technical skills with their new network during the hackathon. To me, the organization exemplifies the idea of sustained innovation and employee engagement using hackathons.
d. Long Term Organization Transformation
Fortune 500 companies are using hackathons to reap meatier ROI that includes talent retention, product roadmap, and prototyping. One of America’s oldest toy companies, Hasbro held their hackathon (called “Hasbro-a-thon”) where developers came up with new ideas for play. Besides building prototypes, the hackathon was Hasbro’s change management strategy.
By opening its doors and data to a more public audience, Hasbro put their trust in developers and open-source with their data, IP, or assets. Having said that, hackathons need to be managed like an internal workflow shift and not an event in order to sustain the results of a cultural change. An ecosystem should be put in place where participants and developers are stakeholders and regular incentives are rewarded to bring hacks to the finish line.
4. Hackathon as a Tool for Business Transformation
In two of my previous organizations that I worked for, each employee was given a KPI to submit at least 3 ideas to be selected by a panel that comprised members of the senior management team. The selected idea (and employee) will have to refine the idea, create a prototype and ‘sell’ it in front of a large audience in an organization, competing with other presenters for the most innovative idea award. However, the whole process of submission, selection, and presentation took months in the same work year and employees dreaded the thought of being chosen to prepare and to present their innovation projects on the stage and in front of the senior management team and all employees.
As I’m writing this post, it struck me that hackathons are now so commonplace that they should be adopted as normal business practice owned by the learning function or business units. It’s clear that a hackathon is also a safer way to foster innovation and creative problem solving than conventional business, curriculum, and IT transformation activities. Hackathons need not always be about designing new apps or products, it’s also about “hacking” away at old company processes and ways of working, creating a culture of learning and innovation within an organization.