June 22, 2009

What's so open about open innovation?

Although this was the 7th year for the User Innovation workshop, it was only the second year in which open innovation was explicitly listed as a topic in the CFP. Although last year’s workshop at Harvard was officially the “User and Open Innovation” workshop, it felt a little awkward being there as a keeper of the open innovation flame, as many of the “open innovation” papers were not consonant with the Chesbrough definition.

This year, there were more papers on open innovation (as defined by this blog) and the user innovation researchers seemed more open to open innovation researchers and their participation.

That said, there is still a gap between how Chesbrough used the term “open” and how other researchers on distributed innovation use the term. For the latter, “open” is often a synonym for free, as in the communitarian (or communal) mindset of the Free Software movement. Much of the research on user innovation examines cooperative user production of goods that parallel Free Software.

Since I’ve done a fair amount of research on open standards and open source, I’ve been long aware that the “open” in open innovation is different. In fact, in a 2007 paper in First Monday (based on an earlier conference presentation) contrasting these phenomena, I wrote
A lot of open source and open standards participants wonder what’s “open” about “open innovation.” After all, both of the former have a shared or public goods element to them, whereas a prime goal of open innovation (as defined by Chesbrough, 2003) is that firms have a way to capture a private return. In fact, in West and Gallagher (2006) I argue that the purest forms of open source or free software (such as Project GNU) are specifically not open innovation. …

Open innovation is not “open” like the other two. If anything, open innovation brings a note of realism to the discussion of open standards and open source, by putting the profit motive front and center. …

Conversely, open standards and open source provide existence proofs for building effective institutions that align and coordinate the interests of potential competitors. For example, the open source license provides a “credible commitment” to make it less likely that commercial interests will under–invest in specific technologies.
Still, there is a ways to go to bridge the open innovation and user innovation research communities.

At OUI 2009, someone more savvy than I remarked to Eric von Hippel that he did not use the term “open innovation” in his 2005 book Democratizing Innovation, but instead “open and distributed innovation.” If you search the PDF, the phrase appears 3 times and “open innovation” not at all.

I briefly discussed the boundaries of open innovation with Prof. von Hippel at OUI 2009, who said that his use of “open” referred to free information and said the Chesbrough usage was more about “IP markets.” I replied that the “open”-ness of open innovation was as in permeable firm boundaries of “open systems” theory (think Dick Scott and his book dating back to 1981).

When I asked von Hippel about user innovators who charged for their innovations — as in his paper from the Statistics Canada survey — he said that by his definition that was certainly user innovation, but not “open.” As suggested by his 2005 book, von Hippel’s interests today lie in users solving their problems and sharing those solutions, more than the commercialization of user innovation (which in some ways is more consonant with the open innovation paradigm).

For me, this is additional motivation (as if I needed any) to publish my work with Marcel Bogers contrasting user and open innovation. These communities of researchers (and their corresponding phenomena) have important overlaps, even there are important differences (which is why they are separate theories).

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