May 26, 2007

What is “community” innovation?

The final event of the “Managing Open Innovation through Online Communities” track was a keynote by Karim Lakhani, integrating the entire track. I’m sorry I was unable to attend the keynote (when I made my train reservation, I didn’t know about the inflexibility of the HEC shuttle buses), but Karim was gracious enough to share his slides.

I wish I had been able to go, because it’s clear that Lakhani tried to stir things up and the discussion must have been lively. Still, the ideas are well worth acknowledging in a blog about open innovation.

He started by quoting an April 23 article in the New York Times on how thousands of Wikipedia contributors are able to make effective news summaries for major events such as the Southeast Asian tsunami, the London subway bombings, or the Virgina Tech massacre. He highlighted on quote by a Wikipedia contributor:
As the popular joke goes, “The problem with Wikipedia is that it only works in practice. In theory, it can never work.”
One problem that Lakhani pointed out is that sociologists could never agree on what “community” is, with nearly 100 definitions used by 1955 and an ongoing split (identified in 1887 by Ferdinand Tönnies) between the two ideas expressed in German as Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesselschaft (society). The field also sought to reject any concept of community working together for utilitarian (rational choice) reasons.

To find the way out — at least for researchers like Lakhani interested in phenomena such as user innovation — he points to a 2001 paper by Jochen Gläser which uses a definition that allows for instrumental motives:
A community is an actor constellation that consists of individuals who perceive to have something in common with others, and whose actions and interactions are at least partially influenced by this perception.
He then explicated key differences (on factors such as the basis of membership and coordination mechanisms) between the traditional “communities” studied by sociologists, and the communities used in the innovation literature:
  • social movements, such as environmentalism
  • communities of practice — typically defined by a professional identity, such as copier repair technicians
  • knowledge producing communities, such as scientific communities
  • problem solving communities — which is where he classifies F/OSS
To this, he wonders how we can/should study communities in innovation. Are communities really like organizations? How are sponsored communities different from organic ones — or ones organized entirely within a firm?

After examining communities, he sought to unpack the other words of the track title and the controversies that might be studied within each: open, innovation, managing, etc. I’m sure this was equally important, but I had trouble engaging this from the slides. And the community dimension is one that was particularly salient for me at EURAM, as I presented the latest version of my work with Siobhán O’Mahony on sponsored open source communities.

When compiling an open innovation research agenda that concluded the 2006 book, I’m embarrassed to say that we didn’t even list “community” among the different levels of analysis that might be used — even though I’d co-authored an open source chapter in the same book and already presented a paper with Siobhán on sponsored communities. This was a major omission, because studying communities — particularly outside open source — seems a major opportunity for open innovation scholars.

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