Ned Gulley and Karim R. Lakhani presented The Dynamics of Collaborative Innovation (description, audio/video) last week at the Berkman Luncheon series. I had previously recorded and blogged Karim's similar, less detailed Open Innovation presentation back in May for the Berkman@10 Conference. Karim and Ned have been measuring various aspects of collaborative innovation around a programming contest that seems ideally suited for this purpose. I suspect that few real-world environments have such a good built-in mechanism for objectively measuring the strength of innovative contributions.
I found their insights into the differences between novel, game-changing submissions and incremental improvements particularly interesting. Within this programming contest, each individual user submission is objectively measured for performance against a desired outcome (e.g. algorithmic best fit), and the current best performing code submission is highlighted for all to see. This structure may create a problem in that innovative new approaches often do not immediately yield the best result as compared to an incremental code improvement. The social reward of being highlighted as the current best may encourage incremental improvements over novel approaches, potentially having the overall innovation outcome stuck in a local max.
Assuming that introducing novel ideas increases the chance of an eventual best outcome, then innovation environments like this might benefit from better incentives to reward novelty. Additionally, this contest environment has no inherent mechanism for identifying novel and potentially useful knowledge. Ned and Karim highlighted a specific example where a novel, under-performing programmatic approach introduced early was eventually adopted later in a programming contest and provided the conceptual foundation for the winning and final submission. Had this novel approach been overlooked, it is unlikely that the winning code would have performed as well.
I would argue that incentives designed to encourage the introduction and eventual sharing of novel information would prove useful, especially considering our human tendency towards only exchanging shared knowledge and withholding unique (and potentially important) knowledge in many social circumstances. Cass Sunstein explores this hidden profiles phenomenon at length in his book Infotopia.
Von Hippel and Lakhani focused on internet-driven collaboration in user-led innovation communities. They point to some specific research examples including kite surfing, PostgreSQL, and the MATLAB collaborative programming contest
Over the last several years, these two (amongst others) have radically challenged the conventional thinking on who innovates and how it's done. Our understanding of the innovation process is at an interesting juncture, where open sharing and online collaboration has helped highlight the growth of user-led, community-driven solution design. This notion first gained popularity in 2005 when Von Hippel published a book on his research, inspiring me to first blog about democratizing innovation.
Description from Berkman:
Internet and the widespread availability of sophisticated digital design tools are radically changing best practice in product and service development. What was until recently a process concentrated within producer firms is now becoming democratized and widely distributed. This fundamental change has widespread consequences. What is the impact of these developments on innovation processes, business models, and government policies?
Last night's "Food for Thought" dinner at the Berkman@10 conference was a real treat. It also could easily have become a game of who-coined-that-famous-term. Our group of 13 or so included Tim Wu (coined 'net neutrality'), Dave Weinberger ('small pieces loosely joined') and Doc Searls ('markets are conversations'). We tried to discuss the small, humble problem of 'how to save the Internet'. Considering the dinner immediately followed a 2-hour open bar and we were dining on a rowdy roof deck, it's a miracle we got through introductions. The big takeaway for me was learning of some great initiatives from JP Rangaswami, who is innovating British Telecom from the inside-out and Joshua Kauffman from REGIONAL, redesigning the tools of democracy around the world from the bottom-up. Finally, props to Cole Camplese from Penn State, who, aside from manging the digital download chaos of 100,000 students, clued me into how to how to tunnel out of university firewalls in order to get access to my SMTP services. Thanks, man.
''A growing body of empirical work shows that users are the first to develop many, and perhaps most, new industrial and consumer products.''
- Eric von Hippel
The idea that users develop great volumes of successful innovations is not new, but it is perhaps shocking in its implications. This idea suggests that our traditional view of manufacturers or entrepreneurs as the primary and best source of new ideas may be flawed. Are the billions spent on R&D misguided and only introducing limited innovations? Additionally, there appears to be a growing trend for users to freely and openly distribute their innovations (think open source). This won't help businesses relying on secrecy and legal protection to leverage their own innovative assets.
In his new book “Democratizing Innovation,” Eric von Hippel presents compelling evidence of how and why users innovate for themselves, and why they see many benefits in freely revealing these innovations. He points out that businesses that rely on innovation for continued existence (such as product manufacturers) should take note of these emerging trends and leverage methods for profitably working with user-driven innovation.
Eric von Hippel is Professor of Management of Innovation and Head of the Innovation and Enrepreneurship Group at the MIT Sloan School of Management. His new book “Democratizing Innovation” is available for download under Creative Commons License at his website: web.mit.edu/evhippel/www.