Hack Your Way to HR Effectiveness

The value and utility of a hackathon has been well-documented in the computer industry. They can last a day, several days, a week or even longer. The hackathon is a time for computer programmers to come together and work both intensely and collaboratively on solving some kind of computing challenge. Like a brainstorming session, the hackathon is focused on a very specific topic. Unlike brainstorming, however, the ultimate goal is to not just generate ideas, but to actually solve the challenge and build some kind of usable software.


First coined in 1999, the practice became widespread in the early 2000s as a highly effective way to quickly build new software and get it ready to launch. But the hackathon model has made major headway beyond the realm of computer applications because of how successful it can be in driving rapid innovation. In this sense, it is quite similar to the whole notion of “open innovation” wherein a company looks beyond itself to essentially crowdsource innovation. One of the first and most successful models of open innovation is P&G’s Connect + Develop program (source).

Examples of hackathons that go well beyond computer applications include the Campbell’s Soup Hack the Kitchen, the GE Appliances Hackathon, and the Emirates Travel Hackathon. In each case, the events represent successful and cost-effective ways to drive innovation.

This leads to the obvious question – How can the power of hackathons be used in talent management? Even more importantly, has your average HR professional even experienced the kind of energy and synergy that hackathons generate? Most haven’t, but an HR hackathon trend is in the making.

The Northern California Human Resources Association (NCHRA) conducted its first HR Hackathon in 2013 (source). Called Hack the Experience, the event was billed as the first-ever hackathon for HR and communications pros. The idea was to create better employee experiences and build higher levels of employee engagement by deciphering the employee experience organizations create, then hacking or breaking it down at just the right places to produce meaningful change. The event was so successful that HR Hack II was held in April 2014.

Also in 2013, CIPD and the Management Innovation eXchange (MIX) held their own HR hackathon. More than 1,700 participants came together to hone in on one question: How can HR become a catalyst for proactive change in organizations? The full report, Hacking HR to Build an Adaptability Advantage explains how over several months this multi-phase project created mutual understanding of the issues, defined key terms, and developed more than 150 mini-hacks, provocative ideas for changing such vital HR practices and processes as talent acquisition, talent development, performance management (source).

In February 2014, HR Magazine ran a story about its own first-ever UK hackathon focused on human resources. It was a two-day event that left participants feeling successful, energized, and hungry for more (source), leading event organizers to start planning a second event.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) sees that value that the hackathon concept can bring to the HR table, and recommends that newbies take the following advice from those more experienced with how it works (source):

Prepare. Think through how you’re going to frame the specific issue, challenge or opportunity that will be the focus of your hackathon. If you’re planning a relatively short event, such as one day or less, the more specific your topic the better.

Plan. Select a date and location that’s going to work for as many of the people you want to be involved as possible. Also, determine whether you’re opening the event up to people from outside your company or keeping it internal. Even if you’re keeping it among employees, consider having it off-site so people are mentally freed from the constraints of the daily work environment. The idea here is create an environment that will be as conducive as possible to generating ideas and immediately acting on them. Everyone needs to be completely “unhooked” from the standard work-flow and be free from all forms of interruption. There’s a tricky balance to strike between providing a structure that gets things done while also optimizing flexibility to be creative. This is important, so give it careful consideration.

Play. For this to be ultimately successful, it also has to be fun, so figure out what elements can be built in that build excitement, energy, and a sense of fun competitiveness.

Finally, be sure you capture all the information and ideas generated – there could be the seeds of the Next Big Thing right there in the results of your hackathon, so don’t lose out on those potential opportunities. Whether you do this in a high-tech or low-tech way doesn’t really matter as long as you capture the results. That’s how you can hack your way to talent management success.

November 11, 2014   Updated :December 16, 2016   hack, hackathon, hr hackathon, innovation, talent management   

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