Open innovation: some initial thoughts

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The software industry is a great place to look for models of open innovation, but be warned that the basic definition of ‘open’ can vary, and you need to give so you can get.

Every once in a while I get asked to talk to a customer or a partner about “open innovation.” I immediately make it clear that I am not involved in the design or manufacturing of consumer products, be them electronic devices, household cleaners, or light bulbs. I have been very involved with open communities that have led to the creation of software and worldwide standards. That is, though I have focused on software there is a tremendous amount of open innovation in the IT industry.

While there are fairly formal definitions of open innovation, let me dance around the idea with a few statements that could come from people looking for it:

  • “My organization is locked into old ways of thinking and process, and we need fresh ideas from outside to reinvigorate us.”
  • “I recognize that the best ideas for growth might not come from people on my payroll.”
  • “It’s too much work and expense for us to build a platform on which we can then innovate, so we want to work with others to build a common, shared foundation.”

Ideas that can derail this are:

  • “I want to get good ideas and useful technologies from the outside, but I don’t want to give any back.”
  • “There’s nothing ‘open’ about what we do, but it makes a heck of a great marketing term.”
  • “We’ll start off being open and then become more proprietary if we gain marketshare.”
  • “We would never be part of an open community unless we maintained control and were really in charge.”

While it is true that some in the open source community propose that all software be 100% free and unfettered forever, there are others that focus more on the core idea that sharing is good but what people do with the software after that is up to them.

Therefore if you are in another business that is considering working with people or a community outside your organization, be aware that there are many models for openness. Do the research on which is most appropriate for what you plan to do and how you want to engage.

I believe open innovation involves creating win-win situations for everyone involved, and that will require shared control, democratic governance, and trust. Something needs to be in it for everyone, though the gains desired and made will vary by party.

Not everyone will be successful when they are involved with open innovation. The best ideas in the world won’t always compensate for being lousy in business. Understand what risks you are willing to make and how hard you are willing to work, but also go into the endeavor knowing what success will look like for you and how you can measure if you have achieved it.