Many of us think of hackathons as gatherings of technically-minded people coming together to write computer codes while looking sleep deprived. While the word hackathon is deeply rooted in the technological culture, today we see a variety of hackathons, from solving climate change challenges to promoting social good. Participants with backgrounds as diverse as marketing, human resources and project management are taking part in these events, working alongside programmers and IT professionals. Broadly speaking, a hackathon is a creative and collaborative means of solving problems within a limited time period. When designed appropriately, internal hackathons could work very well for companies striving to cultivate cultures of learning. Here are a few ways hackathons support organizational learning.

Peer-led Learning

Hackathons require people to form teams and work together to solve a problem. The problems are usually complex, challenging and authentic, requiring collaboration and a variety of skill sets. The key to success is maximizing diversity among team members to reflect the diversity of perspectives, experiences and domain knowledges. This is a huge opportunity for learning and development (L&D) staff to learn from other departments and units within the organizations. For example, learning professionals can learn more about data interpretations from business analysts and storytelling techniques from marketers. This type of peer-led learning can help in upskilling and reskilling employees.

Fail Fast

Hackathons usually last for a short period of time. Participants won’t have time to come up with a perfect solution, and the speed of execution is more important than perfect execution. For this reason, rapid prototyping is the norm. Rapid prototyping is a design approach consisting of ideation, prototyping and testing. It starts with group ideation to generate ideas; then, you create lo-fi prototypes that are easily reproducible with a paper-and-pencil sketch. Finally, you test your prototypes on users. In L&D, we often focus on just one learning solution, and stick with it throughout the development cycle before getting any feedback. The tight turnaround time in hackathons encourages you to test many ideas to increase the speed of training design and development.

Idea Validation

Idea validation is the process of testing and affirming your idea prior to launching the product or service. User testing is a common technique used in hackathons. User testing allows the designers to observe how users interact with the product and receive direct input from them. It is about putting yourself in your users’ shoes to determine whether your solution offers value. Similarly, idea validation can be applied in L&D by testing your learning solutions with real users, so that your design is feedback driven and learner centered.

Agile Mindset

The experimental nature of hackathons helps learning leaders adopt an agile mindset. To have an agile mindset means that you are open to diverse ideas and continuous feedback, and moreover, you are able to adjust accordingly. An agile mindset is about learning and adapting, so iteration is key. It is not unusual to see hackathon teams go through several lo-fi prototypes before arriving at a final solution within a couple of days. To put it in the context of L&D, we can apply an agile mindset in designing and delivering our training and learning solutions by pilot testing small increments of content, collecting feedback from your learners, and preparing to change your learning design and approaches based on the insights.

The ethos of hackathons is learning by doing, and working together is crucial for success. I challenge you to host a hackathon at your organization to start cultivating a learning culture.