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HBS Hacks: Alumni Solving for the Future of Work in San Francisco

By: Margaret Busse 07 Jun 2018

On Friday, May 18th, from dawn until dusk, 75 HBS alumni gathered in Google’s Community Space overlooking the San Francisco Bay to “hack” an issue causing growing anxiety all around us:  the future of work. As we all witness on an almost daily basis, the world of work is constantly changing at an ever-increasing pace. Technological breakthroughs are upending traditional work everywhere—from grocery store self-checkout stands to software automating bookkeeping—and causing both displacement and new opportunities for workers. Many see it as an inevitable brewing storm. 

The Social Enterprise Initiative (SEI) wanted to engage alumni on this prescient problem, and so teamed up with three other HBS-based organizations, HBS Association of Northern California’s (HBSANC) Community Partners Program, the California Research Center, and Managing the Future of Work (MFW), to create an innovative new alumni convening model: HBS Hacks. HBS Hacks combines both learning and doing in a hands-on, interactive event that uses elements of tech hackathons and design thinking principles.   

In designing the day, HBS drew on the expertise of a cross-sector set of collaborators: the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development, Google.org, IDEO, California community colleges, and Goodwill of San Francisco, San Mateo, and Marin, and settled on the challenge for the event: How might we ensure zero unemployment due to automation?   

With this quest in mind, participants were divided into nine teams to develop prototype solutions for three different future of work scenarios. The fictional scenarios reflected plausible imminent situations the Bay Area community may face: a grocery store displacing dozens of workers by automating its checkout process; a professional services firm adopting software that automates its bookkeeping process, threatening the jobs of employees in its accounting group; and an underprivileged high school senior assessing his options for post-graduation employment, knowing low-skilled jobs may be quickly automated away. 

The goal? Design the winning solution for your assigned scenario! 

MFW faculty co-chair Professor Bill Kerr kicked off the event with a rousing case discussion that not only highlighted key trends in the future of work but also demonstrated participants’ varied perspectives, experience, and concerns with this issue. Participants then listened to cross-sector experts from the City of San Francisco, the California Community Colleges system, Goodwill, and Google.org, who each offered insights into their organization’s existing capabilities and ongoing challenges with future of work issues.   

With this preparation in hand, it was hack time! Teams spent the next five hours creating a prototype solution for their scenario. Design thinking experts from IDEO coached the teams, leading them from wide-open brainstorming, to quick feedback and iteration, and finally to a prototype, in the form of a jazzed-up webpage, created to articulate their ideas. 

Nine judges, selected for their cross-sector expertise on future of work issues, then had a chance to weigh the prototypes’ various strengths and weaknesses and declare three winners, one for each scenario. 

For the grocery store worker scenario, the judges chose alumni Team “Baker” as the winner for their Talented website, which enabled soon-to-be-displaced individuals to meet with local employers with job openings and also connect them with training sources if they needed some skill upgrades for new positions.

In the bookkeepers challenge, Team “Morgan” took the prize with their ASPIRE prototype, which used a website matching approach connecting bookkeepers with training opportunities from local educators, nonprofits, and companies in need of particular skill sets.

The winning team for helping underprivileged high school seniors looking for post-graduation employment was Team “Shad” with Future Finders, a comprehensive online, real time marketplace for matching high school graduates with projects, internships, and jobs as well as ongoing learning opportunities for sustainable employment.

While the winning team members were awarded nominal prizes, all participants came away from the day having lent their creative and productive juices to an important social issue, and forged deeper connections with fellow HBS alumni in the process. 

But now what? The day’s end did not bring a conclusion to the work. HBSANC’s Community Partners will work with key HBS Hacks participants and organizations to follow up on the winning solutions to further develop and test them in the real world, reconvening with engaged parties in one year to assess progress.

Given the tremendous success of this first HBS Hacks event, SEI plans to replicate the model, using different topics and/or in different locations around the country to further harness the energy and expertise of HBS alumni. So stay tuned!