The term hackathon may inspire visions of software engineers writing code en masse at 3 a.m. while drinking Red Bull. But that’s one model. It’s also known as “a gathering where industry experts collaboratively address pressing issues in an extreme manner over a short period of time.”

Both versions share some of the same aims, include encouraging innovation and providing a forum for different perspectives to solutions and both can take place outside the normal day-to-day business.

The second model was put to the test last month at Staffing Industry Analysts’ Executive Forum in San Diego, Calif., in a competitive “Profitability Maximization Hackathon” to solve two fictional case studies of contingent workforce challenges.

“The hackathon model is a great mechanism to share ideas and identify areas of opportunity because it forces individuals from different companies and backgrounds to confront the same problems,” says Bryan Peña, senior VP, contingent workforce strategies at Staffing Industry Analysts. “This allows people to think outside their current understanding and identify potentially innovative ideas and solutions that may not have been obvious otherwise in a noncompetitive environment.”

Staffing executives divided into teams comprising representatives from several staffing firms and were given two business case scenarios to address:

  • A staffing buyer — after losing a patent battle in court — must reduce costs from its contingent workforce program. And it’s already a program with a VMS and understaffed MSP with $70 million in contingent workforce spend and more than 100 suppliers.
  • A longtime client asks a staffing firm to provide technical talent they have not supplied in the past and do not have experience in providing. If they refuse, the staffing firm could lose the account entirely, including the existing business.

The hackathon session lasted an hour — although competitors had several more hours that day to turn in their handwritten or typed solutions. Proposals had to include the recommended strategy being applied and actions to be used to advance that strategy. A judging panel comprising representatives from Staffing Industry Analysts and event sponsor People 2.0 evaluated the submissions based on vision, originality, detail, plausibility and perceived likelihood of success. The top team for each scenario was awarded.

“Our team just happened to gel really well at the outset,” says Aaron Grossman, CEO of Independence, Ohio-based staffing provider Talentlaunch, who was the winning team in the first business case. “What I really appreciated was that we really came together.”

One of the benefits of the hackathon was the exchange of ideas and hearing different approaches to tackling the problem and rationalizing how they might make sense, Grossman says.

“The best part of this exercise for me was actually listening to all of the different perspectives,” says Anastasia Valentine, executive VP and managing director at Resource 1, an Oak Brook, Ill. based IT staffing firm, who was on the same team.

The team was able to keep the conversation dynamic and utilize different business experiences from its members to solve the problem rather than going for a solution based on one person’s perspective.

“We all naturally gravitate to what we know,” Valentine says. However, “we can’t recreate what we know, we have to solve the problem at hand.”

Kip Wright, president and CEO of Houston-based staffing provider Genuent, whose team won the second business case, also says the different perspectives mattered. While some might be tempted to immediately embrace the new business, his team debated at the outset over whether a staffing firm should take the business or not. Is the staffing buyer in this case still a viable company?

“It sent a message to the team that don’t presume; you’re going to have to defend this a little bit internally,” Wright says.

Wright says he planned to do hackathons with his own staff on a company trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

“We’re going to do it a little differently,” he says. “We’re going to have our top recruiters be challenged with a sales business case and our sales team challenged with a recruiter business case.”

The idea is to make both think about the other side’s perspective.

Members of the winning team in the first scenario:

  • Aaron Grossman, Talentlaunch
  • Ajit Walker, Ampcus
  • Anastasia Valentine, Resource 1
  • Jamal Mahijibhai, MSG Staffing
  • Jodda Perry, WorkN / Jonas Software
  • Matt Lyon, Alliance Solutions Group
  • Maurice Fuller, New Vector Group
  • Ray Lichocki, A-Line Staffing Solutions
  • Sagiv Barmor, Allegiance Staffing
  • Uma Chidambaram, ObjectWin Technology

Members of the winning team in the second scenario:

  • Kip Wright, Genuent
  • Matt Eckert, Genuent
  • Natalie Runyan, Anserteam
  • Nick Stallard, The Reserves Network
  • Ramesh Lokre, Saicon
  • Shawn Garner, The Reserves Network
  • Thomas Simons, Clinical Resources
  • Toby Windridge, SThree