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Create beyond the borders of the company: A case study of Swisscom’s hackathons



The purpose of this paper is to provide a communication perspective on recent modes of civic engagement that aim to generalize making, opening, sharing, and collaborating. The case of benevolent hacker communities related to hackathon competitions is a compelling context for understanding this phenomenon. The study is based on a content analysis of tweets exchanged in a context of co-creation (i.e., Swisscom’s Hackathon). A definition of participatory and transparent communication is proposed.
Create beyond the borders of the company: A case study of Swisscom’s
Créer et collaborer au-delà des frontières de l'entreprise : une étude de cas
des Hackathons de Swisscom
Asdourian Bruno, Maître d’enseignement et de recherche
University of Fribourg (CH), Communication and Media Studies Department
Mots clés : coopération, hackathon, transparence, participation
Keywords: cooperation, hackathon, transparency, participation
Cet article fournit une perspective communicationnelle aux modes d'engagement civique
favorisant la création, l'ouverture, le partage et la collaboration. Le cas des communautés de
hackers bienveillants et des compétitions hackathon est un contexte approprié pour
comprendre ce phénomène. L'étude est basée sur une analyse de contenu de tweets échangés
dans un contexte de co-création (Swisscom's Hackathon). Une définition de la communication
participative et transparente est proposée.
The purpose of this paper is to provide a communication perspective on recent modes of
civic engagement that aim to generalize making, opening, sharing, and collaborating.
The case of benevolent hacker communities related to hackathon competitions is a
compelling context for understanding this phenomenon. The study is based on a content
analysis of tweets exchanged in a context of co-creation (i.e., Swisscom’s Hackathon).
A definition of participatory and transparent communication is proposed.
Create beyond the borders of the company:
A case study of Swisscom’s Hackathons
Asdourian Bruno
Recent modes of civic engagement, such as benevolent hacker movements, have highly
influenced the balance of power between citizens and organizations (Fieseler & Fleck, 2013)
and transformed the conduct of organizations. Benevolent hackers and collaborative
communities are might prove to be one of the richest sources of ideas, creativity, and
feedback for organizations. It is of theoretical importance to define a participatory and
transparent communication that can foster idea generation and digital app creation.
Civic hackathons (Johnson & Robinson, 2014) understood as time-limited events for
addressing an organization’s issues but also maker and co-working spaces are new kinds of
third places (Oldenburg, 1999; Suire, 2016). Benevolent hackers, serious amateurs, and digital
activists are spawning new relations on the path of learning, co-creating across borders, and
sharing. Organizations are starting to interact with communities with participatory cultures
(Jenkins, 1992).
This study will focus on the following research questions:
RQ1. How do some organizations communicate through a participatory culture?
The objective of this study is to propose a definition of a participatory and transparent
1. Literature review
1.1. Communication, PR and community engagement
With Kent and Taylor’s dialogic communication (2002) and Ledingham and Bruning’s two-
way symmetrical approaches (2000), a theoretical shift has taken place in the public relations
field. Many organizations follow principles of openness and trust in relation to guidelines and
literature (Grunig & Huang, 2000; Hon & Grunig, 1999). The Public Relations Coalition
(2003: 2) recommended that organizations articulate a set of ethical principles or create a
process of transparency that applies to all areas of their business. Stakeholders must be invited
to participate in this process to indicate the information they need to make accurate decisions
(Rawlins, 2008). Further, web 2.0 users, communities of practices (CoP), and hackers ask for
more information, more ethical behavior, and a collaborative culture inside the organization’s
1.2. Benevolent hackers and civic hackathon
Benevolent (or civic) hackers are “computer aficionados driven by an inquisitive passion for
tinkering and learning technical systems, and frequently committed to an ethical version of
information freedom” (Coleman, 2013: 3). They are in favor of decentralized solutions and
organizational forms (Delfanti & Iaconesi, 2016). Hackathon challenges promote creation
using an organization’s open data (Goëta & Mabi, 2014). Johnson and Robinson (2014)
described civic hackathons as: “a time-limited (typically hours or days) event, launched at a
specific venue, where enthusiasts, government workers, interested citizens, and members of
the private sector meet in a collaborative environment to access [an organization’s] open data.
The goal […] is to leverage [the organization’s] open data to develop software applications
that address issues of shared civic importance. […] Civic hackathons often present a specific
problem or theme (such as transit, or engagement), to which the sponsoring [organization]
aims to direct participant efforts toward the development of an app serving some sort of
public and/or market need.” (Johnson & Robinson, 2014: 350351)
The number of hackathon events is growing rapidly in a context of corporate contests and
open government. Generally heterogeneous groups of participants are composed of citizens,
students, engineers, designers, or artists. Hackers and makers are used to manipulating data
generated by and flowing through applications, software, platforms, and infrastructure. Civic
hackathons could have numerous impacts on organizations:
(i) the organizations’ information could become more “ascertainable and
understandable” (Gower, 2006: 95);
(ii) the organizations could appear to be more transparent;
(iii) trust in these organizations could potentially increase (Strathern, 2000);
(iv) and thus, these hackathons could also serve to leverage knowledge about what
stakeholders want to know about these organizations (Rawlins, 2008).
1.3. Participation
Many organizations are still employing one-way communication, only posting information
and not engaging in dialogue communication (McCorkindale, 2010). Few of them follow
Kent and Taylor’s dialogic loop of communication (Rybalko & Seltzer, 2010) to engage with
their public and follow a corporate-centric PR.
Paradoxically, on the citizen and stakeholders’ side, the demand for participation is high
and, in the case of hackathons, is mostly based on intrinsic motivations. Understandably,
citizens do not want or find it useful to participate in pre-decided products/services or media
context. Instead, participation through the creation process or the media is solicited by
citizens (Park et al., 2000).
1.4. Transparency
Rawlins (2008) offered the following definition of transparency: ‘‘the deliberate attempt to
make available all legally releasable information whether positive or negative in nature in
a manner that is accurate, timely, balanced, and unequivocal, for the purpose of enhancing the
reasoning ability of publics and holding organizations accountable for their actions, policies,
and practices.’’ (Rawlins, 2008: 75). Transparency thus refers to a number of PR concepts:
sincerity and truth (Libaert, 2003); corporate responsibility and ethics (Gower, 2006); a
decision-making process (Ledingham & Bruning, 2000); and relationship building
(Jahansoozi, 2006).
This literature review leads to the following hypothesis:
H1. Exchanges on Twitter between an organization and hackathon members indicate
the organization is willing to engage in discussion and co-create in a collective
decision-making context.
2. Methodology
2.1. Sampling and data collection
Tweets exchanged between a major Swiss organization Swisscom and benevolent hackers
during two hackathons (Start_Hack, IoT Hackathon) were analyzed to test hypothesis H1.
Switzerland’s main telecommunication company was selected because of its activities in
hackathon events. The content sample comprised N=130 unique English, German and French-
language tweet and posts regarding hackathons: 65 from Swisscom and 65 from hackers.
Tweets are analyzed from Twitter accounts @Swisscom_Dev, @Swisscom_HR_de,
@START_Hack (i.e., Start_Hack’s hackathon organizer) , and Twitter hashtags
#starthack2017, #START_Hack, #IoThack15 (i.e., IoT Swisscom Hackathon). They were
collected manually and concentered around Swisscom’s 2017 and 2015 hackathon events.
2.2. Measures, code sheet and coding procedure
The content analysis’ code sheet follows AIP structure (Carpentier, 2011) and was developed
from studies outlined in the review of the literature. Namely, to analyze access the concept of
openness was coded using Kent and Taylor’s dialogic principle (2002) of the usefulness of
information, adapted to hackers’ need of data. To analyze interaction and relationships with
third places, Kent and Taylor’s dialogic principles (2002), Davies et al.’s enterprise dimension
(2004) of innovative and up-to-date organizations and Hon and Grunig’s items (1999) of
exchange relationship and commitment were selected. Finally, participation was coded
through different sub-elements. To analyze the do-it-with-other (DIWO) movement a
reference to Gerber and Hui’s motivation to participate (2013) was done. To analyze sense
making and satisfaction, links to Davies et al.’s agreeableness dimension (2004) and Hon and
Grunig’s measure of satisfaction (1999) were considered. To analyze sense of empowerment a
reference to Smith et al. (2015) and Bandura (1997) was done (i.e., the following categories
were included: enacting attainment, vicarious experience, sense of autonomy and social
connectivity). Finally, Hon and Grunig’s items (1999) of control mutuality were selected,
such as “This organization and people like me attentive to what each other say”. The units of
content analysis included the user type (i.e., hacker and Swisscom).
The results reveal that new relationships with communities of practice for hacking data in
collaboration with the organization have a significant influence on the latter.
Table 1 Descriptive analysis (Swisscom n=65; Hackers n=65)
Usefulness of
17 (29%)
2 (3%)
Third place
Dialogic loop
8 (14%)
4 (6%)
Conservation &
44 (68%)
25 (38%)
40 (62%)
10 (16%)
32 (49%)
3 (5%)
48 (74%)
7 (11%)
Be part of a
45 (69%)
59 (91%)
Sense making and
40 (62%)
35 (55%)
22 (34%)
33 (51%)
Power negotiation
Sense of
47 (72%)
45 (69%)
Control mutuality
27 (42%)
6 (9%)
Note. Degrees of freedom (1).
* p<.05.
** p<.01.
2.3. RQ1. How do some organizations communicate through a participatory culture?
This study conducted a Chi-Square test to examine actors uses of transformational oriented
communication. Table 2 displays the descriptive results for all coding categories examined in
this study. Hypothesis H3 proposed that exchanges on Twitter between certain organizations
and hackathon members demonstrate the organization’s willingness to engage in discussion
and co-create in a collective decision-making context. Content analysis results show that
messages sent by the organization and hackers give high visibility to the context of being part
of a community and sense of empowerment. Swisscom was more likely to provide
conservation and generation tweets (χ =11.15, p<.01), enterprise (i.e., innovation and up-to-
date organization)(χ =29.25, p<.01), exchange relationship (χ =32.88, p<.01), commitment
(χ =52.97, p<.01), be part of a community (χ =9.42, p<.05), and control mutuality (χ =17.91,
3. Discussion and practical implications
3.1. Defining a participatory and transparent communication
Participatory culture inspires organizations to adopt participative and transparent modes of
collective decision and action. A definition and assessment of participatory and transparent
communication is therefore needed. Five defining principles are proposed:
(1) Openness. Relationships with benevolent hacker communities, known for their ethic
and openness values, is a way for organizations to embrace PR theories oriented toward
dialogue, participation, trust, and transparency. Openness can mean opening’ or giving
access to data or disclosing information about the organization (L’Etang, 1995).
Openness is also related to accepting and responding to criticism (Fish et al., 2011).
Furthermore, openness is linked to innovation management through crowdsourcing
(Howe, 2009), whereby citizens become involved in collaborative innovation. Thus,
more than a decade after Chesbrough and Williams publication (2003) on open
innovation, the initial managerial audience has expanded globally to a number of
organizations, most of which have adapted their research methods and communication
to those of CoPs.
(2) Third place relationship. Three types of communication can emerge in relation to the
third places hosted by hackers and collaborative communities:
Communication on third places. This refers to communication on the general
innovation role of the organization and its capacity to understand current social
norms surrounding innovation and actions linked to participative and transparent
forms of governance. This kind of communication can be associated with
minimal forms of participation and self-interested impression management;
Communication inside third places. Sponsoring hacker and maker events can
increase an organization’s visibility within CoPs and lead to opportunities to be
in contact with them and understand their norms and needs. Within this context,
the organization may appear to be more fair and open, although its
communication is still essentially promotional;
Communication with third places. Communicating about collaborative
experiences or employees in third places with hackers and CoP members
corresponds to a maximalist form of participation. Moreover, having corporate
hackers is a managerial way of almost (Gershenfeld, 2012) becoming a smart
participative and transparent organization.
(3) Do-it-with-others (DIWO). The concept of DIWO emphasizes the collective and
collaborative action of the individual and atomistic innovation of self that acts” (Ratto &
Boler, 2014: 8). DIWO is observed in various forms linked to altruism (Unger, 1991):
DIWO-for-other means doing together with benefits for other persons or groups (for
instance for medical research and health problems); DIWO-for-all means doing together
with benefits for everybody, including the persons participating in solving the problem
(for instance for fighting climate change or developing smart cities). The DIWO concept
emerges because the heterogeneity of the crowd is a condition for getting the best results
from crowdsourcing. Engineers, artists, students, designers, technicians, and even mere
citizens are welcomed and the term “other” can refer to individuals, groups, or
organizations (whether commercial or not).
(4) Sense making and satisfaction. Recent socio-technical praxis in relation to creating
things and digital services is in coherence with the social norms of expressing ideas
freely and sharing knowledge and solutions that include self-creation or self-
assembling. Major outcomes are conceptually oriented toward “freedom,
decentralization, heterarchy, autonomy, self-determination, collaboration, and mutual
aid” (Milberry, 2014: 54). Three types of values and sense making emerge:
Sense of fulfillment. People need satisfaction (Söderberg, 2012). Products/services
created by citizens make more sense that those that are merely bought. This is why
participatory communication seems to value individual/collective creation. To
reinforce this psychological gratification, some organizations recognize citizens
participation and demonstrate gratitude toward them (Fisher & Ackerman, 1998;
Yang & Ott, 2016). In this way, individuals can feel that their contributions are
appreciated and can be satisfied with the organization’s evaluation of their
Trust-based communication. Trust has a positive connotation of morality and
ethicality (Banerjeed et al., 2006). When organizations have frequent personal
interactions with social norm partners, it leads to the development of trust and
mutual understanding (Bowen et al., 2010: 305). In a transformational strategy,
organizations can adopt some of the values of the CoP’s to maintain relationships in
the long run.
Sustainable and responsible. Corporate values of sustainability and responsibility
(L’Etang, 1995) are an integrative part of the business strategy of many companies
managing a transition from a minimalist to a maximalist way of participating from
a minimalist to a maximalist way of participating. The social norms followed are
compatible with market norms of long-term profit maximization (Signitzer & Prexl,
(5) Power negotiation: Participatory and transparent communication implies a delegation of
decision-making power and gives participants a sense of power (Bandura, 1977). Some
organizations involve stakeholders and employees in the decision process for selecting
new products, upgrades or creating products/services. Power is negotiated and flows
between hacker (or maker) networks and the organization. These “capillaries of power”
(Foucault, 1982) promote a micro-level, decentralized, and ever-present power model
where negotiation between networks and the organization is a day-to-day activity (for
instance, where citizens negotiate ways of creating and using parks, spaces or mobility
solutions with local mayors). However, this is not the same as an “equalization” of
power, as an organization can decide to stop the openness relationship and take a more
traditional commercial path.
This study reconsiders the relationship between organizations and civil society. This work
portrays the complexity of participation practices and principles inside an organizational
transformation through transparent and participative communication. Organizations can seize
these opportunities to learn how to respect recent public relations theories oriented toward
openness, sharing control over processes, dialogue, participation, trust, and transparency (Men
& Tsai, 2015).
The author wishes to thank Prof. Dr Dominique Bourgeois, Dr. Harald Kust and Jimena
Lazarte for their comments on a previous manuscript.
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