May 28, 2007

Managing open innovation through online communities

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks, so (a week late) I’m posting my final notes on EURAM 2007.

EURAM 2007 ended Saturday [May 21] and with it two tracks that solicited papers on open innovation. To complete our EURAM 2007 coverage, I’ve asked fellow OI blogger Vareska van de Vrande to publish her thoughts on the other track (#12), which she attended and co-chaired.

I attended all but two sessions of the track “Managing Open Innovation through Online Communities” (#15). Although I’ve already blogged on some aspects, I wanted to provide an overall summary. Sebastian Späth of ETH Zürich has also blogged on the track.

Assessing the 14 presented papers (one was a no-show), the track had three main topical themes:
  • Open source communities. At least six papers fit this category, which is not surprising since the organizers are all open source researchers (as were the two keynote speakers).
  • Online communities other than open source, mainly around consumer products, but also Wikipedia, and web logs. Depending on how you classify it, another 4-6 papers.
  • User innovation (of the von Hippel sense), which included both the open source and other communities. The example that stood out was music mods but this seemed to be the one common innovation perspective through the majority of the papers.
The keynotes turned out to be a nice complement to each other, one emphasizing open innovation and the other user innovation and online communities.

My own keynote discussed how open innovation links directly to the open source phenomenon when companies are involved. But (except for the paper presented by Cristina Rossi) the connections of these papers to open innovation and the work of Henry Chesbrough were more implied than explicit.

Of interests to readers of this blog, there certainly are research opportunities here to do more with open innovation. One of the criticisms of the open innovation paradigm (beginning with Chesbrough’s 2003 book) was that the examples were so heavily weighted towards IT that many questioned whether it generalized beyond IT. Last year’s special issue of R&D Management provided additional evidence for open innovation beyond IT. But the work in this conference on user innovation shows how more work can be done on consumer-centric user innovation — which, to the degree it provides innovation to a firm, also qualifies as open innovation.

The other keynote came from one of the leading experts on user innovation — Karim Lakhani, former von Hippel student and now a Harvard b-school prof. His closing keynote (among other things) challenged us to study the innovation role of communities with more precision and depth. Are communities another organizational form? What holds them together? What do we gain from all the various theoretical lenses that have been used to study communities?

As Lakhani alluded to in his slides (I couldn’t attend his talk), one problem with the papers and the field is that we sometimes use the term “innovation” too loosely. There is the old question of whether an open source re-implementation of existing software really qualifies as a technological innovation: Apache was breaking new ground from day one, but the impetus for Linux (and GNU) was to create a Unix knock-off with different IP rights. One of the track’s papers described a viral marketing effort as user innovation, although this could still be plausible if we consider that the innovation process includes interpreting and applying innovations, not just their design and production.

Overall, the online communities track demonstrated the strength of a special interest track system, in that there were synergies (network effects :-) of having so much similar research and researchers in one room for 2 1/2 days rather than tiny pockets randomly scattered throughout a conference. The feedback for open source and user innovation research was exemplary, even if the open innovation knowledge in the room wasn’t nearly as strong (perhaps because they were all in track #12).

Some of the papers are expected to be combined into a special issue of Industry and Innovation to be published in Spring 2008. More details later.

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