August 4, 2014

Crowdsourcing and User Innovation Conference 2014

The 2014 "Open and User Innovation Conference" is over and Academy is about to begin. Before I get two immersed in AOM, let me offer a few belated insights about #OUI2014 and why it remains relevant — and (I argue) central — for OI and UI scholars.

By many measures, today OUI is the world’s best innovation conference. It offers some lessons about the current state of user innovation research, its overlap with open innovation research and also for how future open innovation conferences (such as WOIC 2014) should be run.
Karim Lakhani summarizing OUI 2014 submission topics on Day One of the conference.
The format, participants and topics have made the OUI conference the most relevant in the world for the study of innovation outside the firm. That’s why I’ve attended 7 conferences in a row — out of 12 total since the beginning. Academy is optional, UOI is mandatory.

First, the size (200 participants) and length (2.5 days) is ideal for meeting and getting to know innovation scholars. Yes, there are a thousand or so innovation scholars at AOM, but try finding them among the 10,000 people here. I know if someone is at UOI, I will have time to talk to them and hear their work.

This year was the first with a new format — a few plenaries by leaders of the tribe, followed by two parallel tracks for the rest of the day. I think the format worked well because there were few (but some) conflicts between sessions while still providing a venue for 122 papers.

The one format change I’d make is with posters. When posters work well, they can make a difference in the career of a junior scholar, and also more senior scholars developing a new research interest.

We had great luck with posters at the 2012 London conference. On Saturday, the OCIS division of the Academy had a great poster session with properly aligned incentives: if you want a drink, you had to talk to a doctoral student presenting his/her poster. I am hoping that posters will be a highlight of the WOIC 2014 if we can figure out how to fit them into the format.

Right now, at OUI the “posters” are just a 2 minute oral ad for work that is otherwise not presented at OUI. It tells you what someone is doing but doesn’t give a chance to discuss it with them. In some ways, these seems like the least democratic aspect of a relatively democraticconference. I’d try to see if there’s some way for people to present their posters (e.g. at lunch or over drinks): if the experiment doesn't work, it can be dropped.

Venue and Business Model
At my first OUI (then UOI, before that UI) conference in 2008, I was surprised to hear German conversations along the banks of the Charles River as we took a break from the MIT sessions. Even today, German is the main language for 40-60% of the attendees — less in the US (which tend to draw more Americans) and (natürlich) more in Europe.

The venues have reflected this German-focused aspect of the conference and UI research (and now OI research) more broadly. Of the first 10 conferences, four were at MIT or Harvard, three were in Germany (Munich, Munich, Hamburg), two in Austria (at WU Wien) and one in Copenhagen.

Since 2008, the conference has formally alternated between Harvard Business School and Europe. While registration is now $200, I estimate that it costs $300-500 per person to run the conference, even with donated meeting space. The money mostly goes to food, but also can go (as in Brighton and Vienna) to renting outside venues, local transportation or pay for staff.

It is no exaggeration to say that OUI is kept alive through the wealth of Harvard Business School and its generous subsidies of the conference in even numbered years. European organizers (such as Lisbon in 2015) have to find a grant or sponsor one time every 10 years or so, while the HBS endowment pays out $20k? $40k? (I don’t have the numbers) every two years to help catalyze a discussion of the work of von Hippel, Baldwin, Lakhani and others.

Innovation Communities and Crowds

OUI has historically been a good place for work on innovation communities. In my work on innovation communities with Jonathan Sims, we’ve seen that a large proportion of the work on external innovation communities is by user innovation scholars, people like Franke, Hienerth, Lettl and of course von Hippel. Open source was very prominent early on, although more recently it’s been reduced to one (relatively small) session.

This OUI was taken over by a particular form of community, the crowd. Four of the 16 sessions were about crowdsourcing (a fifth on crowdfunding), making this the major theme of the conference — by far the most popular in terms of submissions. (The next closest was firm interactions with users, with 2 sessions).

In his Monday plenary, Karim Lakhani bifurcated the crowdsourcing world into contests (competitive) and communities (collaborative). I look forward to seeing Karim (or someone else) explain the nuances in more detail. I agree that a contest is not a community, but (like all such classifications) the distinction will be one of degree and perhaps multidimensional.

Users vs. Firms
As I’ve noted many times before — in this blog and in my published research — there is a lot of overlap between open innovation and user innovation. Perhaps 75% of the studies at OUI would fit at WOIC, if the author explained how they built upon and contributed to the OI literature. But often the two tribes don’t talk to each other.

As representatives of these respective tribes, Frank Piller and I have been trying to bridge these gaps. We have a chapter in the next OI book, and Frank used his Tuesday keynote to talk about the similarities and differences.

At dinner I talked to a veteran UI scholar and we compared our respective thoughts. We agreed there is an overlap of subject matter, and so the main difference is on outcomes: UI cares about user success and OI cares about firm success. This impacts what we study, what we measure and of course the normative implications that we draw. (It also correlates to the sort of people and motivations that do the research).

Studies of patent licensing are never going to be popular at OUI, while (I suspect) they will be common at WOIC. But open source, innovation communities, co-creation and — most of all, crowdsourcing — really belong at both. If crowdsourcing is about firms solving problems using the crowd, then at its core it’s an open innovation question — and so most of the 26 crowdsourcing papers and posters would feel right at home at WOIC.

As such, I hope that we will continue to see an overlap of the audiences and authors between these two streams, and that the tribe intermingle (and beget shared papers) to cements the ties between us.

Meanwhile, our venue size means that the first WOIC will be smaller than today’s OUI. Where we’ll be in 10 years is anybody’s guess, but I hope we can emulate the intimate and interactive format that OUI has maintained throughout its lifespan.

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