June 26, 2009

UI guru quoted on Apple open innovation

Karim Lakhani was quoted Thursday in the FT for his knowledge of user innovation, although (perhaps ironically) it was in an open innovation context.

Karim certainly well known among user innovation researchers, one of two recent PhD graduates (along with Sonali Shah) of Eric von Hippel who’s spreading the UI flame (along with countless German apostles being churned out by the minute). He is very active and gregarious as an academic entrepreneur, whether it be a conference, a book project or merely co-authoring a paper or case study. (Karim and Eric are also on the advisory board of InnoCentive, a Boston-area firm shamelessly trying to commercialize crowdsourcing.)

Karim (like Sonali) is a personal friend, initially because of our overlapping open source interest which was kindled by the 2004 open source conference that Karim helped organize. Karim is also a co-author, on the basis of a paper we wrote last year about the under-studied role of communities as a level of analysis in user innovation and open innovation research.

In fact, at OUI 2009 earlier this month, a presentation by Oliver Alexy of LBS (on UI/OI co-authorship linkages) said that West-Lakhani collaboration made the two of us the only linkage between two major communities of UI/OI researchers. As with another paper Karim wrote with Lars Bo Jeppesen, this makes Karim (and his two collaborators) a boundary spanner, or in social network terms a cut point with high betweenness centrality. (As someone strongly identified with OI, I’m working on another collaboration to increase the personal and citation ties between the UI and OI communities.)

All of this is a long introduction as to why I was pleasantly surprised to see Karim’s name mentioned in the FT piece. To quote it, I thought I’d look it up on Google News, so here’s the quote that it provided:
“Hay una explosión de conocimiento en todo el mundo, y las empresas tienen que incorporarse a las redes para participar del flujo. Los muros que solían separar a las firmas del mundo exterior tienen que ser derribados”, explica Karim Lakhani, un profesor de Harvard que estudia las redes empresariales.
I’m guessing that Google didn’t see the real FT article behind its paywall, which is why only the Madrid partnership with FT is available free. Here is what UK (and US) readers of the column by “chief business commentator” John Gapper saw:
“There is an explosion of knowledge around the world, and companies have to embed themselves within networks to participate in the flow. The walls that used to separate the firm from the outside world have to be brought down,” says Karim Lakhani, a Harvard professor who studies corporate networks.
In other words, companies like Threadless harvest outside knowledge and others ignore it at their peril. In fact, on the day the FT article appeared, Karim tweeted:
Teaching @threadless case to SVMP http://www.hbs.edu/mba/svmp/in 14 mins - should be fun
To be polite, the actual Gapper article was a bit hard to follow. Let me see if I can summarize it in a more coherent form:
Apple has embedded itself in a mammoth value network of third party software suppliers that dramatically increases the utility of its iPhone. Competitors like Google and Palm may be able to match its product capabilities [debatable], but they have yet to match its market size.

If even the proprietary and secretive Apple does this, it proves that firms need to work with other firms to create success. This illustrates the point of Prof. Lakhani that knowledge is widely dispersed and firms need to work with others to harvest the benefits of that knowledge.
Since these app store contributors are mostly trying to (directly or indirectly) trying to sell products rather than scratching their own itch, this is more of an OI story than a UI story. Still, many of the principles that motivate firm cooperation with UI are also directly applicable to opening to OI.

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