"It allows for people outside of the company to bring an outside influence and an outsider's perspective to boost innovation and create liquid R&D force," Collins said.
Such events are intense, often spanning 24 continuous hours, and "the projects that come out at the end of the hackathon are actual viable products, not simply ideas on a chalkboard," he added.
As for internal hackathons, one of the big benefits there is that they can have a liberating effect on employees, opening the doors to new creativity. "It allows you to take employees outside both their comfort zone and their physical environment, and that frees them up in a variety of ways," Mikula said.
A financial institution, for example, might take employees offsite, outside the corporate firewall, and invite them to brainstorm and explore to their hearts' content using their own devices.
In fact, Mikula says internal hackathons can be particularly useful for companies in highly regulated industries such as healthcare, insurance, and banking.
"For very good reasons, those employees are steeped in a culture of things you can't do," she said. "A hackathon says, 'forget all the reasons to say no, and think of all the reasons to say yes.'"
Internal hackathons can also provide an opportunity to mash up teams of people who might ordinarily have few occasions to interact, she added.
Deciding whether to hold an internal or an external hackathon is really a matter of thinking carefully about the company's goals, Mikula said.
It's also important to be clear about what participants will get from the experience. With an internal event that's often fairly clear, but companies opting to hold an external hackathon have to tread a little more carefully.
"Companies can't use hackathons as a way of getting free labor," Mikula stressed. "You don't hold a hackathon because you need a new website -- do an RFP and hire a vendor. It has to be more than that, and you have to look at who's going to own those products at the end."
In the case of the NBA's event, IP rights will go to the NBA, she noted, but for many participants, the experience and the exposure to the high-profile league could more than make up for that. "If it were a less flashy brand, some [participants] may weigh things differently."
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