Hackathons as a hot spot for digital skills

When mixed teams tinker for hours or days until they programme new applications from data, then it is most likely a hackathon. This non-hierarchical form of organisation thrives in the digital age, writes our author. I am interested in hackathons: data- and code-sharing events where programmers, designers, project managers and other specialists and interested parties come together for a limited period of 24 to 48 hours and work together on so-called challenges, optimise software or develop prototypes using data and code. Now, I am not a computer scientist, a data scientist or a mathematician – not even a business information scientist. I am not interested in the technical sophistication of solutions, nor in user-friendliness or data access. No, as a work and organisation scientist, I’m asking myself to what extent hackathons represent a new form of organisation and what is actually produced during these events – apart from lines of codes and prototypes. Why this question?

Hackathons as organisational and learning laboratories

In organisational science, hackathons are considered an open form of organisation in which non-hierarchical structures mean that all participants can get involved in innovation processes, regardless of position and status. They are therefore also considered to be particularly inclusive and collaborative – two aspects that are discussed again and again in the context of the digitalisation of the world of work. Universities use hackathons to apply theoretical knowledge in practice and to give students a sense of achievement in implementing solutions and to promote resilience. In addition, hackathons have shown that team learning takes place alongside individual learning: people learn with and from each other. “Learning something” is therefore also a main motivation for most participants to volunteer at a hackathon (Briscoe & Mulligan, 2014).

What are digital skills?

But what can you actually learn at a hackathon? A new programming language, an application or the so-called digital skills? Think tanks and consultancies have repeatedly pointed out in recent years that the digital transformation makes it necessary for us to have more people with technological skills. In a report by McKinsey & Company (2018) on the future of work in Switzerland, they say that the need for technological, social and emotional skills will increase sharply, whereas physical or manual skills will decline. Technological skills include IT and programming skills, technology design and engineering, data analysis and mathematical skills, and basic digital skills (p. 48). Social and emotional skills include: Self-direction skills, communication and negotiation skills, passing on knowledge to others, showing initiative, adaptability and empathy (p.48). This division into technological, social and emotional skills sounds plausible at first. On closer inspection, however, it reproduces the silo thinking of a working world of the last centuries, in which technology was primarily relevant for technicians and social skills primarily for social scientists. In today’s digitalised – i.e. strongly networked and interdisciplinary – working world, it makes sense to rethink this conventional demarcation of skills.

Digital skills at the hackathon

Let’s return to the Bärn-häckt hackathon. What could be observed here during 48 hours are obviously technological skills: People develop and programme, analyse data and write codes. At the same time, it is noticeable that these technical skills are used to varying degrees: There are some participants who already despair when they encounter small problems, while others are motivated to look for a new solution when they encounter larger difficulties. There is a team with a technical expert who passes on his knowledge, whereby the whole team finds a better solution. Or there are teams in which the technical expertise is limited, but which, through a particularly good communication concept and a humorous pitch on the last day, goes down especially well with the audience. Emotional self-regulation (considering exhaustion, irritability, euphoria) is just as present as intentional behaviour and both are directly related to technical expertise. These observations suggest that the concept of digital skills is not only about cognitive/technical skills but is closely linked to social and emotional skills.

One step further in digital transformation

In other words, the way hackers work suggests that the challenges of the digital world of work cannot be met if technical skills occur without social skills, or emotional stability without technical expertise. Digital skills can therefore best be understood as a ‘bundle’ of social, emotional and technical practices. Such a change of perspective can also contribute to overcoming old – but still widespread – stereotypes such as socially incompetent engineers or technophobic social scientists and instead make digital skills a prerequisite for all professional groups, which need to be built up or developed further. Hackathons offer a good opportunity for this. They are not just a tech event, but a prototype of the new working world and thus a learning laboratory for the digital transformation of our working world.

48 hours of hacking

From 23-25 August 2019, the Bärn-häckt Hackathon took place for the third time at the BFH Wirtschaft premises. BFH was actively involved in the event as one of ten challenge sponsors. Under the heading of “sustainability”, it called on participants to develop a sufficiency platform. Other challenges addressed questions of navigation, individualised travel guidance or the future of banking. Not only the results, but also the working methods of the individual teams were impressive. They provided an opportunity to reflect on the current topic of digital skills. One of the winning teams developed a sufficiency platform for BFH. Congratulations once again to all participants who endured the 48 hours and thus proved their digital skills. All information and impressions of “Bärn häckt 2019” can be found here.


  1. Briscoe, G. & Mulligan, C. (2014). Digital innovation: the hackathon phenomenon.
  2. McKinsey & Company (2018). The future of work: Switzerland’s digital opportunity.
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AUTHOR: Nada Endrissat

Prof. Dr. Nada Endrissat is a member of the New Work and Organization Group at the New Work Institute at BFH Wirtschaft.

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