How Facebook Crowdsources Internal Innovation

Published Jan-11-16

Breakthrough:
Many Facebook products, services and tools are developed by internal crowdsourcing initiatives known as hackathons.

Company:
Facebook, United States

The Story:

How Facebook Crowdsources Internal Innovation No one person in a large, complex organisation has all the ideas and answers. Crowdsourcing innovation from employee get-togethers and online communities can be an efficient way to turn light-bulb moments into marketable products and services in speedy time frames.

Social media giant Facebook provides an excellent example of how to tap into the smarts of an internal crowd. Through its hackathons, the company leverages the talents and ideas of its engineers as they come together to build whatever they want. In the past, these gatherings have proved to be the starting point of many popular Facebook features, such as the LIKE button, Facebook Chat and the timeline as well as internal tools.

The hackathons typically follow a similar format. Every few months Facebook engineers will come together for an all-night coding session fueled by Chinese takeaway food and coffee. Often, they come up with new products that end up on the site within a few weeks.

A Facebook Tradition

The first hackathon started in 2007 and involved around 20 employees. Much of the credit for getting it and future ones off the ground is given to Pedram Keyani, who was Facebook’s Director of Engineering until 2014. They are now something of a Facebook tradition involving hundreds of staffers. And although there aren’t many rules, a key stipulation is that employees can't work on the same thing as their day job.

In the week leading up to the hackathon, an internal wiki is set up where employees post ideas, start brainstorming and find teams, allowing people from different parts of the company to collaborate. The hackathons don’t just attract engineers. Employees from non-software related fields also turn up such as lawyers. According to Keyani a lot of people use hackathons to work on a new skill or “on projects where they can be exposed to unfamiliar technologies”.

Additionally, Facebook users can play a part in these crowdsourcing events. They are invited to suggest ideas for new features and site improvements which may be thrown into the hackathon mix.

Keeping the Creative Spirit Alive

After each hackathon, the creative momentum is kept going with a prototype forum, where those who came up with prototypes can pitch them to the company. These are usually held a week after the all-nighter, giving participants time to fine tune and further develop their ideas. Each person is given a two-minute slot at the forum to convince their peers that their idea is a winner.

Several years ago, someone came up with the “tagging in comments” functionality at a hackathon. It was an instant hit with the company and deployed to 100% of users within two weeks.

Hackathons You Can Do

Facebook has reaped a lot of benefits from its hackathons, but these internal crowdsourcing initiatives don’t have to be the sole preserve of companies involved in the digital sphere, as Keyani explained in an interview with the Fast Company.

“Lots of companies have the notion of a "think week," a week to brainstorm other things. It doesn’t have to be in the middle of the night.

“If a company has hired the right people and trusts its employees to have good ideas, it should trust them to have the free time and autonomy to come up with amazing things the company should explore.”

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