Open Innovation and Democracy
The term Open Innovation has been used for less than a decade. To understand why it works, and does not work, it is helpful to consider underlying concepts that have been discussed for a longer period of time. “Democracy” is my candidate for the most important of these foundations. Its direct application to innovation comes from Eric Von Hippel’s book Democratizing Innovation, which can be downloaded from http://web.mit.edu/evhippel/www/index.html under a Creative Commons license — a form of distribution that itself contributes to open innovation.
Each individual in a democratic system is a participant; each has ‘one vote’ in critical decisions. In open innovation democracy might participating in problem definition, solution, or evaluation. The social system can be more or less broadly defined. Democratizing innovation might mean a wider range of contributors within a company or across a well specified network – which is the most important use of open innovation in large companies.
Von Hippel focuses more broadly on ‘users’ in an amazing variety of other settings, from medical communities to extreme sports. Users invent because they have needs that are not satisfied by what is available. Over time some of their inventions are adopted and adapted by those with similar needs. A major message from von Hippel’s work is that technological changes are broadening the opportunities for such developments and thus companies are well advised to observe and interact with a growing number of ‘lead users’ whose innovative solutions presage what a larger market will also find useful.
In The Democratic Enterprise Lynda Gratton adds that the world of work is also moving toward democracy as employees expect more ‘adult to adult’ relationships. Rudi Gröger’s example in Leading Open Innovation is that people living with the information access offered by the Internet are more able to use information and less and less willing to accept information restrictions when they come to work.
In short, the intrinsic democracy of open innovation responds to broad changes in the macro environment. Though not the only innovation strategy, democracy, or the lack thereof, is increasingly likely to be part of success and an explanation for failure.