What we did
Accelerating innovation at Allstate
For Allstate, technology isn’t just about solving business problems—it’s about discovering new ways to collaborate, build and test ideas, and explore innovation. “Digital change may be based on technology, but it’s built around Allstate’s people,” says Shawn Broadfield, Allstate's VP of Claims.
But it wanted to accelerate its growth as an efficient and open organization that embraces innovation among employees. That meant understanding things like how to hold hackathons, and how to use them to explore emerging technologies such as 3-D virtual reality.
Part of the answer was a joint hackathon with Slalom Chicago and Slalom's Chicago Build Center.
Building a “culture of engagement”
The mutual goal: road-test the capabilities of Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets to address specific Allstate business objectives.
“We wanted to role model that kind of exercise,” says Brian Gore, director of talent development, organizational culture, and customer strategy at Allstate. “We thought our biggest deliverable would be advancing our problem solving and innovation skills.”
Along the way, says Gore, a deeper benefit emerged: a “culture of engagement.”
Exploring emerging technology
Allstate’s examination of virtual reality technology used a two-phase approach.
In the first phase, Slalom engineers explored the edge of the envelope as it existed at the time, looking for the art of the possible—and barriers likely to waylay newcomers.
During one of the Build team’s regular hackathon explorations of emerging technology, the teams were directed to have fun, but also gain familiarity with building environments and finding out which approaches yielded compelling results.
For instance, Slalom developers quickly discovered that 3D environments for virtual reality headsets leant themselves to a “roller coaster” experience—where, for example, a goggle-wearing participant could enjoy a 360-degree view of their surroundings while traveling through an environment along a set path. Or it could be used to explore a defined space, as in first-person video games.
Other practical lessons emerged:
- The relative simplicity of the tool for users who were new to the technology
- The importance of version control and coordination for developers as they did rapid iteration the day of the hackathon
- Discovery of how “pre-fab” virtual environments, such as walls, floors, construction materials, and cars, could be employed to speed hacker teams toward a day-of proof-of-concept
Their collective takeaways were shared with Gore and the greater Allstate teams.
Virtual reality hackathon
Excitement built as the second phase approached: a daylong hackathon for Allstate teams, alongside seasoned Slalom developers, at which some of Allstate’s most tantalizing business challenges were fair game.
Allstate employees volunteered from across business units, including technology, claims, and finance. They were encouraged to form teams in advance and brainstorm a plan for the hackathon to best push the technology—and themselves—to unexpected insights.
Useful interconnections emerged and, says Gore, “competencies were built, as well as a culture of engagement.”
The approach asked more from Allstate engineers and developers, who had to think beyond the technological limits of the technology to explore concepts that could support real-world business goals.
Nimble teams, pairing technologists with business leaders, formed prototypes around business ideas. Teams created a business case for each idea to help inform whether to pursue it further or not.
Aided by Slalom engineers, UX designers, and business advisory consultants, the teams used the VR technology to uncover surprising ways to understand business questions.
Attendees were inspired to think outside of their normal areas of expertise.
“I think attendees were inspired to think outside of their normal areas of expertise,” says Andy Kong, a senior engineer in Slalom’s Cross-Market delivery center.
“They were able to see something tangible through the Oculus Rift within the first hour of the hackathon,” he adds.
Within six hours, thanks to environments pre-built by Kong and his Slalom peers, the teams were presenting digital proof-of-concepts of their ideas to the group.
Hacking a new approach to problem-solving
For Slalom, “the rapid ideation helped us understand what problems the client was dealing with,” says Arcot Naresh, a solution architect on Slalom Chicago’s content and collaboration team.*
For Allstate, “it was an approach to innovation that helped elevate the people doing it,” says Will Capellaro, a Slalom UX designer/researcher who led the Allstate brainstorming exercise around which business problems to address.
“They didn’t overthink the hackathon as a goal. It was an enabling exercise,” adds Capellaro. “That approach has a broader reach for problem solving, and I felt like we could leave the building in good hands with a model for the future. People would have seen it work.”
Allstate’s ongoing commitment to innovation
Allstate’s march to innovate has continued. But for many of the company’s employees, the virtual reality hackathon has infused ongoing efforts.
“The behind-the-scenes pre-work that Slalom did allowed us to enter at a more common point,” says Gore.
That was table stakes to the big bet that followed, he says: “The process opened the mindset to opportunities.”
Arcot Naresh and Will Capellaro are no longer with Slalom.