How do you pivot your entire face-to-face business to online when faced with changing circumstances?

Five years ago, Joanne Jacobs and Gavin Heaton combined their backgrounds in professional education, marketing and innovation change management, to form the company Disruptors Co.

What started as a series of handbooks soon grew into corporate level innovation workshops and events aimed at helping organisations adopt new technologies or innovations and adapt to disruption.

Then the coronavirus swept the globe. Workers were sent home. Social distancing was advised.

The message: stay away from other people.

Whole of office workshop sessions? Forget it. Teams of people covering walls in post-it notes? Not today.

Disruptors Co had to change – fast.

“The nature of a lot of what we do in business is still face-to-face,” Disruptors Co CEO, Jacobs told Information Age via a Google Hangouts session last week.

“Now, if we can replicate that face-to-face activity as close as possible through digital technology, then we should be doing that.

“And we shouldn’t be asking people to learn a whole new system.”

With those principles in mind, Disruptors Co built a system for conducting their collaborative innovation workshops while cities shut down and workers are forced to work from home: iHackOnline.

The platform is a way for Disruptors Co to integrate their innovation process in a virtual environment and is designed to allow ease of registration, multi-document collaboration, and mentorship.

It can also be integrated with collaboration tools like Slack so people don’t have to pick up, and login to, an entirely new toolset.

“We wanted to be able to facilitate the standard kind of interaction you would normally get from a hackathon,” Jacobs said.

“These are usually one to three day events with teams of four or five delivering a solution to judges and getting some ideas about whether or not they can spin that into a company, or integrate that solution into their organisation.

“It’s uniquely suited to very small groups of activity but in a very concentrated period of time, so we needed to have an interface that achieved the same sense of collaboration.”

Learning from the bushfire crisis

Jacobs began to see a need for remote workshopping during this summer’s devasting bushfire crisis which killed 34 people, destroyed more than 3,500 homes, and caused the deaths of an estimated one billion animals.

“We were beginning to work with people who were in rural and remote areas in the midst of all the fires,” she said.

“And I was even isolated in an evac centre in Lithgow just before Christmas.

“So this was a situation where I didn’t think I would be able to get back to Melbourne to see my family over Christmas.”

Trapped in an evacuation centre as flames ravaged the land around her, Jacobs began to wonder how being isolated would affect her business.

“I was feeling quite safe, in terms of where I was staying, but I was asking myself questions like ‘How I would continue to work in these conditions?'

“‘How was I going to continue to communicate and participate in these kinds of events remotely?’”

Before the end of last year, Disruptors Co began working on a backend system that could allow the company to deliver the same manner of enterprise-scale innovation workshopping online without losing the spark of human interaction.

And then the coronavirus started to spread. China shut down. Tech companies sent their workers home. Supply chains were disrupted.

“By late January it became obvious that this would have far-reaching effects – not just to ourselves but to other organisations that deal with face-to-face workshops,” Joanne said.

Now, iHackOnline is about trying to keep business running as usual during this unprecedented global health crisis.

“If we can keep people in jobs,” she said, "if we can keep people doing what they were doing before but in a way that is comfortable, that is low investment in terms of learning new things, and that can work with familiar architecture – then I think we’ve got something really valuable here.”