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Jan 30, 2018

Change—regardless of its context—is a challenging concept to embrace in the best of times, never mind when it puts a person’s livelihood at stake. And yet, according to the European Commission, 80% of employees in Sweden are welcoming emerging technologies, such as AI and automation, with optimism rather than fear—quite contrary to their North American counterparts.[1] The reaction is awe-inspiring to say the least, and one that companies and governments across the world can inevitably learn from.

Need to accelerate innovation and buy-in to disruptive change? Host a hackathon!

For an organization to fully embrace Robotic Process Automation (RPA), Cognitive Automation (CA), and Artificial Intelligence (AI)—technologies that will inevitably take over tasks previously performed by humans—you have to get your people on board, and show them the opportunities these technologies create. It’s a lesson businesses in Sweden have learned faster than most—and one they haven’t hesitated to put into practice.

“In Sweden, if you ask a union leader ‘Are you afraid of new technology?’ they will answer ‘No, I’m afraid of old technology’,” the Swedish minister for employment and integration, Ylva Johansson, said in the December New York Times feature, The Robots Are Coming and Sweden is Fine. “The jobs disappear, and then we train people for new jobs. We won’t protect jobs. But we will protect workers.”

To achieve this sort of employee buy-in, organizations must take deliberate strides to engage their people in their technological evolution, show them there are higher-value jobs waiting for them on the other side, and give them the tools to perform these new jobs.

One effective way to do this is through hackathons. Traditionally a rapid prototyping ideation exercise designed to quickly create usable software, today organizations are using this team focused event to problem solve virtually any organizational challenge—from eradicating process inefficiencies to setting priorities for technology adoption.

In essence, hackathons are extremely intense brainstorming exercises—they take place over a condensed, focused period of time and involve a number of different teams competing to solve a specific problem, with one ultimately being crowned “the winner”.

“A hackathon offers an opportunity to come up with multiple solutions to a problem,” says Taryn Huyer, Manager in Deloitte’s Risk Advisory practice. “To consider the issue from all angles, it’s important to have a diverse population in the room, typically across age and business lines. You want people with different skillsets who will see the problem from different perspectives and help define both the business case and the solution.”

As an example, Deloitte recently held a hackathon to explore and identify opportunities for RPA within our organization. We invited a diverse population of employees to attend an RPA tool workshop where they received a crash-course on how to use the tool. We then introduced our challenge problem: What process would you most like to automate with this technology? Each group was not only asked to identify a process ripe for automation, but to also make a business case for the solution by outlining the associated financial benefits. They were also given the opportunity to come up with an actual prototype to automate the process.

After the one-day hackathon—which spanned into the evening—attendees came back the next day to pitch their solutions to a panel of judges. Once winners and runners-up were chosen, we provided all participants with feedback.

“The de-briefing was a really important step. Often hackathons just end after the winner is announced, which makes everyone who didn’t win feel like they’ve wasted their time,” Taryn explains. “By debriefing, however, we were able to identify additional areas for improvement and ultimately create a pipeline of opportunities that will allow us to contemporize our core.”

As it stood, the two-day hackathon resulted in 10 business cases and 10 RPA prototypes. The winning solution automated the production of financial reports used to document business success.

“This has traditionally been a highly manual process that relies on spreadsheets,” says Taryn. “Through RPA, however, we can now standardize these reports, source the information more quickly, and produce them faster too. We anticipate this will automate over 20,000 work hours for just this one redundant process.”

In the face of emerging technology, a hackathon can be a tremendous engagement tool. In our case, it allowed us to identify some broken processes, many of which didn’t require RPA to fix. It also offered our employees an opportunity to learn more about RPA technology, and understand how this technology can be used to improve their existing jobs.

“This ‘hack-a-bot’ approach allows employees with no background in a particular technology to learn how to run a basic bot and ultimately make a business case for its use,” says Taryn. “It’s a democratic process that eliminates fear and actually energizes your workforce.”

If you’re considering launching your own hackathon to resolve a pressing business challenge, it’s important to take the necessary steps to extract value from it. This means making it worth your employees’ time by finding executive sponsors ahead of time, and setting aside funding for any winning solutions. “At one client they had over 200 people participate, giving up their weekend for the event. What was key for the on-going buy-in was making sure the top three ideas got funding to do a Proof of Concept for their ideas. Otherwise we never would get that level of commitment again” says Paul Skippen.

“It’s not enough to simply send out a congratulatory e-mail to the winning team,” says Paul. “You need to dedicate real dollars to fund a solution, make it operational, and point to it as a success a few months down the road.”

To learn more about how to facilitate hackathons in your organization, please reach out to Taryn at [email protected], or contact me directly.

Paul Skippen

[email protected]

[1] https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/news/attitudes-towards-impact-digitisation-and-automation-daily-life

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