Employees at Google, Yahoo and some other innovative organizations are regularly allowed time to set aside the routine work schedule to develop whatever ideas they’d like – all on company time.

Google calls the exercise 20 Percent Days, because employees can take one day a week to work on projects that motivate them. Some companies call them FedEx Days – because the results have to be delivered by the next day.  Whatever the exercise is called, organizations say those hours are some of their most productive.

The University of Central Florida’s Center for Distributed Learning is taking the same approach with similar results.  The center is responsible for delivering online learning to UCF’s growing population, which creates a host of unforeseen challenges.

So once a semester, employees are encouraged to step outside the confines of their normal workday and find solutions to challenging problems or create something unexpected that helps the team accomplish its mission.

The center calls it Hack Day and recently held its third exercise. Hack Day is a term used by computer programmers and software developers when they work collaboratively on projects.

“Every time we have done this we end up with many projects that are both fully developed and ready for immediate implementation, or are substantially complete and only need minimal work to wrap up,” said Thomas Cavanagh, UCF assistant vice president in charge of distributed learning.

“I should also note that the projects are not all focused around programming tasks. We have had people develop new policies, improve purchasing forms, create a style guide, and other important tasks.”

Some of the dozen or so ideas that have been implemented are:

  • A web application that allows students to use text messages from cell phones to submit quiz answers or poll responses, which eliminates the need for them to buy a separate device for classes.
  • A mobile, friendly method of time tracking and logging, which is ideal for conveniently logging class time or time away from a desktop computer.
  • A reorganization of some sites’ contents, which allows faculty members to more easily find the information they are looking for.
  • The center’s staff designs, delivers and supports online learning through faculty development, course production and research. Their task grows bigger each semester: In the 2011-12 academic year, 72 percent of UCF students (49,856) enrolled in fully online or blended learning courses, and out of the total class enrollments, 30 percent (159,981) were online or blended.

    Cavanagh said Margie Chusmir, an organizational development consultant with the UCF Human Resources staff, passed along the idea to the CDL for staffers to design and work on projects that interest them.

    “This is their second year and the results of the one day dedicated to innovation have been very impressive,” Chusmir said, adding that she hopes the concept spreads to other areas of the campus.

    Ian Turgeon, a web application developer, took on the responsibility of organizing the project. Each Hack Day starts off with a quick meeting to go over all the proposed ideas and allow teams to form. The following day, the participants meet again and present their work. Projects are voted on, and the top teams receive prizes.

    From 15 to 30 CDL employees participate each Hack Day, said Francisca Yonekura, assistant department head.

    “This spring was the first time people started to venture out. Some of them worked at the Student Union and other folks went to the patio area by the Technology Commons,” Yonekura said. “Since the budget is limited these days, we are printing magnets with a Hack Day identifier, which amazingly enough you see at the winners’ desks…the ‘medals’ are proudly displayed.”

    So far the winning ideas from these bursts of creativity have been used in-house, but some of them could eventually be patented for external use, Yonekura said.

    The scope of projects is as varied as the talents of the CDL employees, Cavanagh said, adding that even though all the ideas don’t pan out, the exercise strengthens the team.

    Yonekura said: “The event seems to already be in our minds as we often hear statements such as, “Oh, that is a Hack Day-worthy project. When is the next one?’”


    To check out the CDL’s web page for Hack Day, go to https://cdl.ucf.edu/