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When people think of HR, "sexy" probably isn't the first adjective that comes to mind (except for me, of course). While the industry involves some fascinating, trending topics—like the gig economyoffice perks and making work meaningful—most people tie HR to compliance over creativity. 

But one company may have found a solution to reinvigorating the reputation of HR. The LinkedIn Festival—billed as a non-technical HR hackathon—was the professional networking site's nontraditional take on an industry conference. Held over two days at the end of July, the event asked participants (200, selected from a field of more than 900 applicants) to address the issue of employee engagement.

Just how nontraditional was it? Well, for one thing, the entire event was organized and run by LinkedIn's 19 “Global Talent Organization" interns (the company's HR department). For another, the participants were limited to undergraduate and graduate students interning around the San Francisco Bay Area.

According to Samantha Hamlin, LinkedIn's HR director and business partner, the results were nothing short of spectacular. We caught up with her after the event to talk about the value of engaging young people in HR, why innovation needs to be a two-way street and what it takes to put the “human" back into human resources.

The Value of Diversity

Though the hackathon was billed as an HR event, interns from multiple departments joined forces to brainstorm solutions to talent management problems. According to Pat Wadors, senior vice president of GTO and also a judge at the event, only two of the competition participants were HR majors. The rest were studying engineering, economics, marketing and other fields.

“When you surround yourself with people who think exactly like you, you get this false sense of security that maybe you've seen everything or that you know everything," says Hamlin. In order to get better at your job, she says, you need to expose yourself to a diversity of thoughts, cultures, backgrounds and even generations.

Finding Connections Across Disciplines

LinkedIn's GTO interns themselves came in with diverse backgrounds and experiences. The challenge for their supervisors, said Hamlin, was finding a way to leverage the different skills each brought to the table. It's a challenge the interns met themselves during the hackathon process, both as they worked together around the common goal of hosting the event and as they challenged event participants to put their disparate knowledge bases to work solving HR problems.

According to Hamlin (and a recent Silicon Valley Business Journal article), the approach worked. Not only did teams create a wealth of innovative solutions—ranging from an “impact dashboard" to visually represent the impact of one's work, to an accelerated career-preparedness program, to an app that personalizes intern programs for maximum benefit—but the LinkedIn interns who organized the event cited the experience as a huge moment of growth and pride, calling it “transformational."

According to Hamlin, “They were super proud of what they delivered. I haven't heard anyone say that it wasn't worth the effort or the time that they put in."

HR Is About People, Not Compliance

Research shows that millennials are less interested in things like pay and more interested in being engaged in their communities, touching the lives of others and making a tangible difference in the world.

Wadors says LinkedIn wanted the event to reflect these values as it encouraged people to come together around a single issue. “[LinkedIn is] focused on treating people beautifully," she says. And by giving interns an opportunity to collaborate and “touch the whole elephant," the hackathon demonstrated the power of bringing industry insiders and outsiders together.

Though it's too soon to know for sure whether the event will become an annual LinkedIn Festival, Hamlin and Wadors expect the experiment to be replicated, both at Linkedin in the coming years and at other organizations. “I think [imitation] is the highest form of flattery," says Hamlin. “We already have people reaching out for toolkits or saying, 'We wish we'd thought of this first.'"

Photo: LinkedIn