August 10, 2010

Not all open source is open innovation

During my discussions at AOM2010, one of the topics that came up is that sometimes the term “open innovation” is conflated with other terms and phenomena.

My view: don’t call it “open innovation” unless you mean it in the Chesbrough (2003, 2006) sense. I say this not as a minor functionary of the "open innovation” dogma, but for the same reason I would tell a Ph.D. student to not use “RBV” or “five forces” or ”social capital” for other purposes than as defined in the mainstream literature. It creates confusion, and suggests confusion in your own mind (not a good thing).

There are other terms available, such as “open and distributed innovation” (as used by von Hippel 2005), collaborative innovation, or other terms that I can’t think of right now after 72 hours of AOM.

Open Innovation: Researching a New ParadigmSimilarly, not all “open source” is “open innovation.” In Chapter 5 of the 2006 book, the editor of Section II(Chesbrough himself) pushed Scott Gallagher and I to tease out the overlaps and differences between open source and open innovation. I’m certainly glad we did, as it gave me a conceptual clarity that I’ve used ever since — and perhaps with this blog I can inform those who didn’t wade through 300+ pages of academic prose.

The key discussion is on pp. 99-102, and is not in other versions of the paper (because the change came at Henry’s request). Figure 5.1 summarizes the main point: there is open source that is not open innovation and open innovation that is not open source. The latter is trivial, because things like Windows and other licensed proprietary software are examples of external innovations licensed by PC makers that they don’t develop themselves.

Conversely, the folks at the Free Software Foundation or Project GNU are not interested in making money for companies, which is the whole point of Chesbrough’s book, paradigm and body of research. There are many examples of non-commercial OSS (or FOSS or FLOSS if you must), just as there are other forms of non-commercial online communities that don’t fit the open innovation model.

(I also wrote a 2007 paper drawing distinctions between open standards, open source and open innovation.)

So “open source” as a construct is not identical to “open innovation”, “online communities,” “open content,” or for that matter “free software.” (Some people treat “free software” as a proper subset of “open source” and some don’t, but no one treats them as synonymous.) The better researchers are using their terms more precisely, so that the research findings of multiple authors can be contrasted and integrated without creating needless confusion.

West, Joel and Scott Gallagher (2006) “Patterns of Open Innovation in Open Source Software,” in Henry Chesbrough, Wim Vanhaverbeke, and Joel West, eds., Open Innovation: Researching a New Paradigm. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 82-106.

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