Confused About Generative AI in HR? Here’s How To Run A Hackathon!

As I’ve talked about for months, Generative AI is like a swiss army knife that seems to be capable of anything. But once you get these LLMs into practice, you find out they have to be built, adjusted, and architected into solutions. In other words, we won’t suddenly see the productivity benefits of AI unless we focus on solving a problem.

One way to do this is to wait: wait for some vendor to come along with an off-the-shelf thing that simply blows your mind. But unfortunately, because the technology is so new and the vendors are still learning, that approach may take time. There’s a much better way: stage a Hackathon.

As we’ve been talking with many dozens of HR departments about AI, most of them have hundreds of ideas how AI may help. We know AI chatbots could power our employee self-service, and we know the LLM could help us build training programs, assessments, and smarter learning paths. And we also believe the LLM could become a massive repository of compliance content, or even a “research and educational assistant” like the Copilot we are building.

Which of these make sense for you?

Well as we’ve been learning, one quick way to get focused is to ask your teams to set aside some time and prototype (in PowerPoint) a real solution your company needs. CocaCola has been running what they call a “promptathon” and they set up 20 different functional groups to play around with ChatGPT and come up with winning use cases. But PagerDuty, one of the world’s fastest growing software companies, did even more: they built a Hackathon competition.

(PagerDuty is the leader in digital operations management platforms: tools that help software companies instrument and support their applications. The company booked more than $100M in license revenue last quarter and is growing at double digit rates.)

How The PagerDuty Hackathon Worked

A few months ago Joe Militello, PagerDuty’s Chief People Officer, was talking with his team about the potential benefits of Generative AI. And they knew that their People Team had impressive ideas (you can see them below) so they wanted to tap into collective thinking. So they set out a program called PagerDuty People HackWeek. The idea was to unleash the energy of every individual in HR, and give them the opportunity to “hack” a solution (not writing any code), and then video-tape the solution strategy and crowdsource a winner.  (Essentially a “pitchfest.”)

These kinds of programs work extremely well, because they force these teams to think about the problem, design a solution, and figure out a way to communicate it so people care. It’s not as simple as it sounds, but it creates a culture of collaborative problem-solving, essential to the core of HR.

The inaugural PagerDuty People HackWeek saw 72% of the team, including employees in five countries, and 100% of department leadership, join the program. The focus: using GenAI to make work more productive and efficient. And cross-functional participants from engineering, marketing, and customer success all joined in.

Within 60 days from launch to completion, the program generated six “winners,” crowned at the September People Team Town Hall. And not only are the ideas fantastic (lots of things you’ll want to share), it taught everyone a lot about generative AI and the company plans hold another HackWeek next year.

The Winners?  Here are the top two, with videos for you to watch!

  • PD Grow: a new portal and development platform for career growth, development, and customized development planning.
  • Flash Feedbot: a new AI powered tool for feedback, performance review, and ratings, and succession planning.

You can see all the applications here: they’re quite an impressive set of ideas, designs, and innovations.

Generative AI Hackathon at PagerDuty

What Are The Keys To Success?

Let me summarize the company’s learnings, and I encourage you to contact Joe and his team for more details:

  1. Start at the top. The People Leadership Team (PLT) sponsored, created, and drove the program. Everyone knew this was important and Joe personally remained deeply involved.
  2. Move fast and iterate. In the spirit of hacking, the team quickly created a plan, trickled information over the weeks, and got feedback before it was launched. Program was launched within 60 days.
  3. Encourage ownership. As with any new idea, some people lean in quickly. Rather than make this a top-down program, the planning team recruited enthusiastic individuals from across the organization, including Engineering, Brand Marketing, Customer Success, and more. Everyone was clear on the plan and these leaders attracted others.
  4. Make it inclusive.  Three weeks before HackWeek kicked off, the project team opened team drafting for ten days, letting participants register as a team or enter as a free agent. All HR leaders were expected to contribute, and anyone without a team could join the pool of participants.
  5. Integrate with company systems. The organizers partnered with engineering and customer success teams to train participants on PageDuty technology, so they could include it in their ideas. Use of PagerDuty tech became its own award category.
  6. Take five days, not one. Over a designated five day period, teams carved out time to work together and come up with creative ideas. Asynchronous work was highly encouraged and the project team held daily office hours to help. By offering five days for work, rather than a traditional 24-48 hour ‘drop everything’ hackathon, participants were able to continue their normal operations with scheduled blocks for hacking. As you can see from the results, this let the teams iterate and focus.
  7. Force teams to communicate value. To win over HackWeek judges, teams had to demonstrate an understanding of generative AI and how their hack leverages it realistic and valuable way. Teams submitted a workflow diagram showing the step-by-step process of their hack, as well as a three-minute video walking through the workflow and demonstrating  its impact. This ensured a consistency of submissions so judging criteria could be evenly applied.
  8. Make it engaging. The People Team and and external judges joined a HackWeek Showcase to view the submissions. To make this event as dynamic as possible, the project team stitched the video submissions, ensuring a seamless and on-time live event, with plenty of real-time chat. Trivia breaks between each entry kept the audience engaged while the judges marked their scorecards.
  9. Award and celebrate. Judges deliberated to determine the winners based on a scorecard covering Impact, Creativity, Execution, Conviction, and Use of PagerDuty. Given the fierce competition, the judges added “just-in-time” awards to recognize even more well-deserving hacks than planned.
  10. Share best practices. PagerDuty created a highlight video and playbook to share the event findings. Other departments are now considering the same approach.
  11. Follow through. Projects that came out of Hack Week are often huge swings that explore exciting new problems in creative ways, or help to de-risk large projects and reveal opportunities to serve customers better. There were 16 impressive hacks, focused on three big areas: Internal Mobility, Team Collaboration, and Candidate Experience. This process helped the People Team understand where to focus going forward.
  12. Make something happen. Now that the winners are selected, the People Team is working with engineering and product groups to make some of these hacks real!

Bottom Line

While most of you are not working in software companies, this approach applies everywhere. Generative AI is so powerful, so new, and so flexible that the opportunities for value are exhaustive. Just last week I saw a major training company explain their strategy to use an LLM to identify skills topics and learning objectives in more than 100,000 course chapters in their library. The goal? To let learners ask a question and find precisely what they need, without fast-forwarding through material they already know.

I also want to point out that this type of program brings HR teams together. Today, as HR shifts to a center of design and innovation, it’s more important than ever to collaborate, ideate, and iterate with your teammates.

Thank you to Joe and the team at PagerDuty for sharing this amazing story.

Additional Information

The Role Of Generative AI In HR Is Now Becoming Clear

Generative AI In Business: Huge Potential, Lots Of Playing Around