How Hackathons Can Help You Re-imagine HR

April 28, 2016

People have a lot of opinions about HR, many of them negative. In fact, Peter Campelli addressed this issue in a recent article, “Why We Love to Hate HR and What We Can Do About It.” According to him, the most vocal critics claim that HR managers “focus too much on ‘administrative’ and lack vision and strategic insights.”

And recently, HR has been trying to change this perception by moving beyond solely focusing on processes and effectiveness to creating compelling employee experiences. Now we hear CHRO’s talk about engaging with employees just as they would engage with their customers. I have coined this the “Consumerization of HR” and this refers to creating a consumer type experience inside a company where HR professionals make a deliberate effort to put the employee at the center of thinking when conceiving new HR products and services in the workplace.

However, many HR companies struggle with how to do this. One technique that is being used by both LinkedIn and Cisco is to create a hackathon, borrowed from tech world, where participants design new technical enhancements to re-imagining the HR experience. At the heart of the hackathon is using design thinking to gain a better understanding of the needs and expectations of employees and reconfigure HR based on these employee expectations. 

How LinkedIn used a hackthon to increase employee engagement  

LinkedIn created a Hackathon for interns working at LinkedIn, Google, Facebook, and other Silicon Valley firms. Conceived as the first ever HR Hackathon, LinkedIn’s Pat Wadors focused on the specific issue of low levels of employee engagement across the entire employee lifecycle, from recruitment to onboarding, development, and the alumni community.

Over a period of six weeks, the word went out and nearly 1,000 college interns working in Silicon Valley applied to participate in LinkedIn's HR hackathon. The goal was to find a diverse group of interns with a mix of undergraduates and MBA candidates, females and males, American born and international backgrounds, plus a mix of technical disciplines with 90% being outside the HR function. Nearly 160 interns were selected and  separated into 31 groups, with senior HR practitioners judging each team’s contribution.

The winning LinkedIn solution was a mobile app that allows interns to give and receive feedback from management, learn about opportunities that are related to their interests, and connect with employees and other interns who can help them achieve their long-term goals. And, the winning group that came of with this idea received a $5,000 tuition scholarship (to be split among the team).

Cisco's Breakathon used design thinking to re-invent the employee experience

In the case of Cisco, Senior Vice President and Chief People Officer, Fran Katsoudas and her team wanted to re-imagine HR by enlisting the support of the entire HR community at Cisco.

So, Cisco closed HR for 24 hours and announced to employees they were using the time to engage the HR team and key internal customers and stakeholders to create new HR solutions. According to Katsoudas, the goal was to create “a global and cross-functional event dedicated to hacking all the ‘little and big things,’ that hinder HR from providing an extraordinary employee experience and empower the HR organization to let go of process thinking, focus on how to re-invent the employee experience from sourcing and recruiting employees to developing them and engaging them.” 

Gianpaolo Barozzi, Senior Director of HR and Talent Management, who led the HR Breakathon design and execution, says this about how the Breakathon was created, “We used design thinking and created as memorable an employee experience as possible – from anticipating the event with funny quiz sessions, to creating a dedicated tracking app, and using Cisco collaboration technologies through-out the 24 hours."

The results from Cisco’s HR Breakathon

The Cisco Global Breakathon involved over 800 Cisco HR professionals and gave birth to 105 new HR solutions covering talent acquisition, new hire on-boarding, learning and development, team development, and leadership.

A sample of the winning solutions include:

1. “YouBelong@Cisco” and “Improving New Hire Experience through ‘Virtual Concierge’”

A mobile app called YouBelong@Cisco to aid both new hires and their managers in navigating the first day and weeks of their career at Cisco

2. “Ask Alex: Your Personal Intelligent Compass"

A Voice Command App that offers you fast, accurate and personalized information about any HR related questions you may have

3. “HR Analytics Breakthrough

A three-staged approach to set-up a full HR Analytics ecosystem: Reactive HR Analytics // Proactive HR Analytics // Strategic and Predictive HR Analytics.

How you can use the hackathon model to shake things up in HR

In stepping back and reflecting on what LinkedIn and Cisco did, three lessons emerge as guidance and take-aways for moving HR from a traditional process model to one which focused on creating a memorable and engaging employee experience.

Lesson #1: Use design thinking to form the foundation of re-Imagining HR

Using design thinking can start with creating customer journey maps, to actually launching a hackathon to uncover how HR can re-think the current solution. And when employees are asked what type of experience they want to have at work, companies like LinkedIn and Cisco are finding it is more than the traditional ‘perks,’ and includes a consumer experience where is it easy to propose new ideas, access solutions, and use the consumer technologies we rely on in our personal lives in the workplace. 

Lesson #2: Create a robust communications program to generate early excitement

Both hackathons at LinkedIn and Cisco created an extensive partnership between HR and Internal Communications to develop a well thought out communications campaign. The campaign included weekly newsletters to key executives, social media presence, blogs and even starting with the question, “What is a hackathon?” There was excitement about bringing a group of employees together to re-think how HR can better service their needs.  And it was a refreshing from HR going off on an ‘retreat’ to think of new solutions, now they were involving the end users in a process of co-creation.

Lesson #3: Partner with key stakeholders and HR customers

The reach of the HR hackathon can be as broad as including both HR professionals, current employees and interns as well as key stakeholders and customers of HR. And using the hackathon model empowers the HR organization to let go of process thinking and silos and instead tap into and engage an extended community where the employee is at the center of thinking and the goal is to create an irresistible employee experience.

Future Workplace and Cisco will be hosting the next Future Workplace Network meeting at Cisco headquarters May 12-13, in San Jose, CA. To learn more, email

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*Image by Tony Chung

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