Hack written on laptop

If you are in the mood for innovation, it's always a pleasure to walk around a University campus.

Here you'll find bright, typically young, people who are driven by the joy of discovery and investigation. The environment is one where self-driven learning always has the highest value. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the hackathon phenomenon which is now burning a path through our highest tech institutions. [See also: Hack days - How CIOs are hacking out new ideas and breaking things better]

Hackathons are fixed-period, immersive, collaborative, events where ideas can be hatched, tested and, in at least some cases, realised in a bare bones way by the end of a 24-hour or 48-hour session. These sessions take place out of hours (typically over a weekend) and are fuelled by sponsor-funded pizza, caffeine and a plethora of sugar-based snacks. They encourage some of the biggest and best technical and programming brains of the future to work on ideas, develop them together in new ways and to learn from shared expertise both from fellow participants and from experts brought in to support the event.

Contrast this very open approach with the way innovation is sometimes attempted in the corporate world: Here the simplest incentive is often thought the lure of cash, and the constraints not those of pure utility or value but of the payback period or product profitability. Constraints can, of course, provide a powerful way to channel innovation, but it's clear which type of constraint is likely to result in the more innovative and exciting results.

Because hackathons look like a great model for how CIOs could encourage and drive more innovation in organisations, we thought we would investigate the hackathon phenomenon here in the UK.

So it was that we took a trip one rainy Saturday to the University of Southampton's Highfield campus, where we sought out the new home of Computer Science at the University, the newly built Mountbatten building. We then called our contact, Ali Amouzadeh, Events Organiser for HackaSoton, to let us in and past the security guard. Ali is worthy representative of the movement in many ways: Enthusiastic, highly committed to the Hackathon cause in general and HackaSoton on particular, as well as being unremittingly helpful to anyone needing his support throughout the gruelling event.

HackaSoton is Southampton University's own Hackathon student club, and it has been active for over two years. HackaSoton uses its strong links to other European countries, as well as organising a series of local events throughout the university academic year, and also supports its members to attend other events.  On this occasion it was hosting its annual and well established HackaGlobal event. This proved to be a great way to witness an international Hackathon event.

Inside the Mountbatten building we saw the whole hackathon process unfold during the 2014 annual HackaGlobal event. By the time we arrived, attendees from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Poznan, Timisoara, Brasov and Cologne joined HackaSoton 'locals' and were busy working on selected ideas which had been pitched at the start of the event.

The entire weekend had been clearly laid out with an agenda which included a mixture of pitches, hourly prizes, incentives, food and lectures, final presentation and judging.  In addition the Southampton organising team had invited mentors from industry and technical organisations are around to help the participants address any specific questions of problems they might encounter.

So, for example, a lecture from Jamie Woodruff, an 'ethical hacker', was supported by platinum sponsor of the event, IT Security Expert's representative Simon Earl. It was a session which attracted almost 100% attendance from the participants, and managed to merge the excitement of raw hacking with the necessary respectability of an 'ethical hacking' approach, and undoubtedly left the room of techie activists with plenty to think about.

The ideas being developed were extremely varied: From searching publically available social data to provide shy people with relevant topics to discuss with someone they have just met, through to a system to automatically translate sign language into text and speech. After due deliberation, the winners were a technical solution to finding your friends or partner in a large crowd (perfect for your next festival), and a replacement for the touchpad which used a special transducer-packed bracelet to sense the movement of your hand. However, it was clear that the event was much more about the taking part than the winning.

The exact structure and duration of hackathons can vary but the core concept remains the same: Give a group of enthusiasts the necessary support and just enough structure to allow them to work hard on an idea, and ask only that they come out of the process with some kind of demonstrable product – a minimum viable product (MVP).

All that said, a key message here is also that it's OK to fail. Things don't always work out the way you expect after all. And having seen the process in action it is clear that the events are as much about the process of collaboration and learning to work in new ways as they are about raw programming prowess or delivering a shiny end-product.

So where has this all-in approach come from? Hackathon is a portmanteau word combining 'hack' and 'marathon', with the first examples of the term appearing at the end of the last millennium (1999). The hack term refers to the idea of rough and ready programming rather than the more pejorative negative meaning now ascribed to the word. And marathon? Well, try staying up for 48 hours and see if you think it fits.

Hackathons started in both educational and business environments. One early result of a commercial hackathon project was the little blue 'thumbs up' like button you'll see below Facebook posts – Facebook has used the hackathon process for a long time to help it come up with innovative enhancements to its products.

Equally, in the academic environment the concept has been applied to more entrepreneurially driven development as well - the HackaGlobal event, for example, requires a business plan as part for the proposition. As a result, hackathons are becoming a honeypot for corporate sponsors looking for both innovative ideas and the smart tech savvy people who can deliver them. They are likely to come across both at such events.

However, the growth and spread of these events is not just viral. Some of those involved in early events, in a true spirit of innovation, have gone on to become organisers who seek to tie them together into logical leagues or associations. In doing so they are also able to get corporate sponsors to supply stuff like hardware, software or mentoring services in exchange for their involvement.

Once such group is called Major League Hacking, which was also involved in the HackaGlobal session at Southampton, offering its support, sponsors and hardware alongside HackaGlobal. As you might expect with such a name, it's a one year old organisation based in the US which seeks to connect a series of Hackathons across US campuses together. It helps them to organise these Hackathons to a proven common model.

In 2014, MLH has added a UK league to its US and Canadian leagues and this autumn there have been (or will be) events at Bloomberg's headquarters (a major sponsor of the UK league), as well as University campuses in Glasgow, Birmingham. Manchester, Newcastle, Warwick, Southampton, Nottingham, Oxford and Strathclyde.

MLH helps to organise the perks participants enjoy though sponsorship, supplying mentors, providing a winners cup and event winners medals and sources and supplies useful hardware though  its hardware library facility. It has also organised support for organisers around the world, and is now planning an annual summit to allow hackathon organisers to share ideas and best practice across its various locations. MLH also been successful in raising awareness of the hackathon in the press and across its user base of some 15,000 student hackers.

CIO spoke to MLH co-founder and 'Commissioner' Mike Swift (or 'Swift' he prefers to be known) about both MLH and the Hackathon phenomenon: "Our goal is to help provide a baseline level of quality that attendees can expect all over the world" he explains. "Students should have access to the latest and greatest hardware; there should be sponsors there with great technology or people to use, basic food, signage and prizes." The analogue Swift uses for MLH is the US National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) which provides league and rankings for college sport in the US. So there are now country by country championships being developed (and already extant in the US) as well as, he hopes a global championship.

Swift originally got involved in hackathons "for learning experimentation and fun and networking like a lot other students". He also makes the point that this is a low risk environment where students can experiment and push the limits of what they know and learn new things – "nobody ever got fired for doing a hackathon". He says it's the students' lack of experience which can sometimes drive them to find new solutions and which can often produce the most interesting innovation.

And what of industry involvement? Sponsors are already involved, and in some cases these are potential employers of the very students who attend. Part of MLH's goal is to facilitate this engagement: "We talk to a lot of companies who don't know how to talk to, or get involved with, hackers and hackathons" says Swift. One the lessons of this work is that it's the companies who do more than just look in on their local college hackathon who will get the most out the experience – offering mentoring,  support and even, perhaps, a little sponsorship. Swift cites companies like Bloomberg, Capital One and Dell as examples of more embedded IT industry players who have engaged fully with MLH.

There's no getting around the fact that a majority of the attendees of these events are still very much focussed on the programming and technology, but it's a programme that should be aimed at a wider audience.

Alongside coders, as Swift explains, "you get designers, hardware makers and product designers – not necessary marketing and sales guys, but we are seeing more and more of those people too". In the early days Swift admits that there was a stigma about having non-technical people at events, "but we are starting to get over that now. There's a lot of value these people can bring to the event".

Swift's previous business was creating a software platform to manage hackathons, called Hacker League. This venture was subsequently sold to Intel and it is now used to facilitate events across a wide range of corporate organisations. GE, Boeing, Microsoft and Walmart are all using this software to promote and operate their internal innovation hackathon programmes.

Everyone is looking for new ways to encourage regular innovation, and hackathons look like a good model for some more technically oriented organisations. The challenge for commercial organisations is to replicate those features of student-led Hackathons which have proved to be so productive.

You can't turn the clock back and make all your staff 19 again. These are fiercely intense periods of activity that take place out of hours. In a 9-5 working environment, a 48-hour uninterrupted hackathon may be a hard (or impossible) sell. But it's also clear that it is the period of immersive and uninterrupted activity which makes these events work so well. So it may be that some analogue of the term-time weekend is needed: A work free off-site event for example.

Another important feature is the 'no risk' nature of the events. It's only in an environment of complete tolerance for failure that ideas can be explored safely and fully. So make sure you have no publically expressed expectations going into such an event, but are able to simply see and enjoy what comes out of the process.

Finally, and this is actually something the student hack phenomenon is now only starting to flesh out, interdisciplinary teams are likely to come up with more rounded and perhaps more innovative ideas and solutions. This is not a process that should be restricted to your developer or even IT teams – business representatives also need to be part of it all.

If you think you can replicate at least some of these characteristics in an internal company setting, hackathons could be great way to get much more innovative. Even if you don't they will work for you, it's clear that there are new ways to reach out to the brightest young students at the point when they are at their most innovative though getting involved as a mentor or sponsor of the burgeoning series of hackathons here in the UK.

And if you also find a new employee or two as a result you won't be the first company to have done so.