Open innovation and being there communications

2 September 2011

The world is not, as they say, getting smaller, and technology is not, as they say, necessarily making distances disappear. Rather, new communication technologies are creating a myriad new spaces in the real and virtual worlds where individuals can find and exchange information. Increasingly, they can also choose what they want to find there, and how. The BBC, and Google News for instance, allow users to decide what news they want through user-designed homepages. And as I have argued before, Twitter has become my new ‘Google it’.

Technology is allowing people to develop and join spaces where they can find all the information they need – both personal and professional. These spaces (networks:communities of practicesocial networks, professional associations, knowledge networks, etc.) have developed their own languages, systems, norms and procedures, giving members ever more powerful tools to access and share the knowledge they need. Just think of the @s and #s and RTs and other codes and symbols that are used in Twitter. (What does FF mean, by the way?)

Many think tanks have traded successfully for decades on creating and sharing specialised knowledge by hot-housing groups of smart people. But they may not be able to do so for much longer.

First, new communication technology is decentralising the production of knowledge. Specialist knowledge is being created worldwide in informal spaces. As a result, individual think tanks can rarely claim to have the best in-house experts on everything they work on. There are almost certainly better ideas elsewhere – if we look hard enough. The difficulty lies in finding them.

A second challenge is that new technology is also changing the way that people communicate and access knowledge. Users don’t wait for knowledge any longer. There is an increasing reliance on syndication and mash-up technologies to aggregate knowledge from a multitude of sources without ever visiting them. Users no longer just ‘take it all in’; they are selective in what they want from each source. The location in which information is accessed is closely related to how it is accessed. Social and professional networks take time to develop – even online – and the time spent accessing information in these places is proportional to the value assigned to the knowledge obtained. So think tanks do not just compete with other specialist knowledge producers, they must also compete with the knowledge spaces their audiences are creating for themselves. This is the real challenge.

A third challenge is that the rules of these new spaces are rapidly being developed by ‘others’. Think tanks, often late adopters are having to play catch up. It is not surprising then, that many researchers feel apprehensive of joining these online spaces. But the longer they wait to join the longer and steeper will be the learning curve. And the opportunity to set the rules (or contribute to their development) will be long lost.

The concept of open innovation provides a possible solution. Open innovation is an innovation paradigm that argues that organisations can no longer rely on the intellectual property they develop internally. They must also be open to the idea of buying or licencing it from other organisations. Wikipedia provides a simple comparison of the principles of closed and open innovation systems:

Closed innovation Principles Open innovation Principles
The smart people in our field work for us. Not all the smart people work for us. We need to work with smart people inside and outside our company.
To profit from research and development, (R&D) we must discover it, develop it and ship it ourselves. External R&D can create significant value; internal R&D is needed to claim some portion of that value.
If we discover it ourselves, we will get it to market first. We don’t have to originate the research to profit from it.
The company that gets an innovation to market first will win. Building a better business model is better than getting to market first.
If we create the most and the best ideas in the industry, we will win. If we make the best use of internal and external ideas, we will win.
We should control our innovation process, so that our competitors don’t profit from our ideas. We should profit from others’ use of our innovation process, and we should buy others’ intellectual property (IP) whenever it advances our own business model.

Source: Wikipedia/Open_innovation

Open innovation underpins two new approaches to research and communication: ‘think nets’ and, for lack of a better term, ‘being there communications’. + I cannot remember when was the last time I read an RSS feed. Back then of course there was no Twitter, Facebook was fairly new (for my generation at least), and the idea of an online strategy was not just bizarre but probably considered a waste of time.] In the very near future, it will be possible for users to further specify the type of knowledge they need (we can do this already) and when (we can, in a way, by the choice of spaces we join). ‘Being there’ requires think tanks to develop Facebook,  Google desktop-like widgets, a twitter strategy, and other applications to ensure that their knowledge is just one mouse click away in the spaces in which their audiences ‘work and play’. An organisation’s page on Facebook is one of the ways it can attempt to establish its presence in these important ‘knowledge spaces’.

Both paradigms are compatible. Think nets allow knowledge producers to learn from each other. Knowledge spaces allow knowledge users to assimilate new knowledge in their own context.

The emergence of think nets and knowledge spaces present a real challenge to traditional think tanks. They can no longer rely on hot-housing smart people to generate and disseminate new ideas. They must embrace open innovation. But what are the implications?

Back when I first wrote this I had to add a paragraph about how ODI was moving in the right direction. No need to do it now, but it is fair to recognise that it has done so in terms of its presence of several knowledge spaces.

I know a bit more about the implications for think tanks in developing countries, now. The most significant implication is that to properly benefit from the knowledge that others have think tanks need to open up to let others benefit from their own knowledge. This is not that easy. It means letting go of people and ideas.

There are some interesting examples. The Center for Global Development has a few visiting fellows who are also fellows or researchers in other organisations. Nick Scott recently convinced ODI to let him work from CIPPEC in Argentina. North-North cooperation is easier. The CIPPEC case reflects the level of development of CIPPEC itself. But the challenge still remains with other organisations.

Embracing this idea properly also means being willing to give up the technocratic high-chair. Think tanks, specially international development think tanks or those supported almost entirely by international cooperation often hide behind technocratic arguments to avoid getting embroiled in more ideologically inspired debates. This is unavoidable. Politics, the process by which groups of people make collective decisions (the affairs of the city), cannot be divorced from the affairs of individuals; and individuals need ideology: a set of ideas that constitutes one’s goals, expectations, and actions, in other words, their values.

In these other spaces the conversation is no longer just technical -think tanks are not just followed by researchers. Inevitably, think tanks would have to open their arguments to new appeals: of ethics, political interests, even religious considerations.

Can they? Should they?