One example of an idea that came to fruition via a hackathon is FaceBus. Facebook has a shuttle service that transports employees from surrounding cities to work, as well as from one part of campus to another.
The shuttle service has perks for both the business and employees: Since employees don’t have to drive to work, they can use the travel time to get some work done. The shuttles are also a greener mode of transportation, and they reduce parking. The only problem was that no one ever knew when the next bus was coming.
During one hackathon, a group decided to tackle that problem. “We wondered, ‘Can we put some sort of GPS receiver [on the bus] that would translate where the bus is, and then create an app where employees could track it?’ ” Campos says. “Before we knew it, FaceBus was born. The idea of these hackathons is to prototype an idea, then work with someone to make it real.”
Lesson 3: It’s OK to Fail
Campos says Facebook’s culture is different from many other businesses because rather than discouraging failure, the company encourages it.
“One of the things that’s really powerful — and what innovation effectively is — is a licence to fail. When you’re willing to tolerate failure, people are willing to do things differently. And if you’re not willing to do things differently, you have to do it in a tried-and-true way, which is not innovative,” he says.
Because Facebook has engineers working in the middle of the night, for example, the company didn’t want to impose a lengthy request process if an employee needed a new keyboard or mouse, Campos says. A solution the IT department devised was a kiosk placed outside of supply cabinets.
Here’s how the new supply procurement system worked: When employees needed a memory stick or a power cord, for example, they scanned their badges, then scanned the item they were taking. They’d subsequently receive an e-mail verifying what they took. A good, innovative idea in theory, Campos says, but employees used the system only five percent of the time.
“Ultimately we decided to turn it off. It was a horrible failure, but my point to the team was not, ‘This is a black mark that goes on your record.’ It was more like, ‘What can we learn from this?’ And it was pretty insightful,” Campos says.
“We learned that we never defined a clear objective; we were more enamoured with the coolness of it. And ultimately we learned that we didn’t need technology to solve the problem — just putting the price tag on the item changed employee behaviour. We learned that if we gave them the information, they’d make the right choice.”
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