Open Innovation: Does it work?

Open innovation is a big trend today in innovation management. Where are its strengths and limitations? A discussion with Atizo.

Today, I had a long chat with Isabel Steiner and Sabine Hofer from Atizo, an entrepreneurial platform for open innovation. Atizo is a platform where companies can post a question to a crowd to get more and better solutions. This is called open innovation since you are not looking inside your own firm for ideas but to a broader spectrum of people. Some call it crowd sourcing for ideas.

The idea behind open innovation is fascinating. With Atizo, you can address more than 8.000 people with ¾ with academic background to look for fresh ideas. The biggest advantage besides the size of crowd of the “innovators” is the fresh viewpoint on the problem. You take advantage that the innovators do not know the way you always have solved the problem in the past; they are not stuck with your dominant logic.

Atizo’s platform allows companies to generate ideas, evaluate ideas and develop the ideas into marketable concepts.

The idea funnel from Atizo

Depending from your scope you want to use, you can use either the whole crowd, a subsection of your customer and clients if you are a business or you can just invite your closest community for the innovation project.

The different crowds to source from at Atizo

Due to these strengths, open innovation became a huge success in the last years. Well-regarded firms like Swisscom, Mammut, Google or BMW have used Atizo’s platform for open innovation to find new solutions.

So, is Atizo a success?

Success Story Atizo

Yes, since most customers were positively surprised about the quality of the solution. The open innovation idea works. The open innovation platform is fast and cheap to generate idea.

However, as every innovator knows, having even great ideas is not enough. Ideas have to be implemented in the firm AND adopted by the customers. First, implementation in the firm is already difficult since so many impediments like lacking resources; different priorities of top management, wrong corporate culture, Not-invented-here syndrome etc. can and will mostly likely kill the idea.

Secondly, an innovation is not what you think it is, but what the customer adopts. Therefore, from the many great ideas only few have seen the market. The classic dilemma of all innovators.

It is the question, stupid!

Moreover, what Atizo also figures out is how important it is which question you ask. Quite often, the question is very closed and so narrowly defined that the ideas are typical MOTS ideas (more-of-the-same). Nevertheless, do not criticize the ideas and solutions. The problem is with the questions. These questions are so framed by the dominant logic of the current business that really break-through ideas cannot be found. This is the same criticism I have already raised in the case of “Design Thinking”. If you ask the wrong questions, you get irrelevant answers.

Solution anybody?

So we discussed how better questions can be asked. One option is to amend the open innovation process with a phase where the crowd can deliver insights into unsolved problems they see with a current solution. They could deliver insights in the jobs that are still unsolved. Moreover, with these fresh insights even better solutions and ideas could be found. Any other idea?

Business Models, Long Range Planning, Baden-Fuller and latency

Long Range Planning, a prestigious academic journal on strategy, discovered the topic of Business Models and Strategy. It dedicated a whole Special Issue to Business Models. I have mixed feelings regarding the Special Issue. On the one hand it is great that academia takes up such an important topic; on the other hand, it is shows again that academia is a self-referential system which has a strong bias to not-invented-here syndrome since most authors do not reference earlier works that were published outside their closed community of Strategy professors. Sad. Many of the ideas I have read at other places before.

Already in May, I have heard that Long Range Planning had published a Special Issue on Business Models. Today, I got hands on it thanks to Andres Sundelin from The Business Model DataBase.

You can access the article via http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/00246301 as a guest. Very interesting topics like “Business Models as Models” by C. Baden-Fuller and M. Morgan or “Business Models, Business Strategy and Innovation” by D.J. Teece are included, so the Special Issue is definitely worthwhile reading.  That is the happy part of the Special Issue.

C. Baden-Fuller, M. Morgan, Henry Chesbrough and business model

What makes me sad about the issue is the closed and self-referential world of the academia in Strategy Research. The topic was broadly covered in early 2000 at least in two Ph.D. theses, I know. However, so far I have found only two citation to Alex Osterwalder’s work in the article “Business Model Innovation: Opportunities and Barriers” by Henry Chesbrough and in the article by Wirtz & al.. Thanks Henry, that you take your open innovation approach also your research. Thanks Bernd.

I hoped to find some background on Business Models in Baden-Fullers and Morgan’s article. Negative. They seemed to have not heard from Osterwalder before, they do not cite him. They are not mentioning ideas of Gary Hamel on business concept innovation from 2000, a concept very close to business model innovation. They cite only their own kind. They still live in their closed community where it is extremely important from whom the idea is coming, even when the original idea is 10 years old and not even cited. That is what I call a long latency!

Origin of business model thinking

The origin in business model thinking dates back to the information management researchers that were building information systems. To do so, they needed models of the reality. They talked about data models, process models, enterprise models and later about business models. When the first Internet entrepreneurs were talking about their strategy, they talked naturally about their business model since that was a language familiar to them. From there, the term transcended to Strategy. E.g., I wrote my Ph.D. thesis exactly at this crossing of information systems and strategy. My supervisors were Prof. Beat Schmid, background in computer science and Prof. Georg von Krogh, a strong researcher in Strategy. Quite a balancing act.

Business model is just a model of a business

When I was writing from 1997 to 2000 my Ph.D. thesis, Prof. von Grogh told me that I needed a unit of analysis for my research. I know the traditional culprits like industry or firm but they did not fit into what we saw in the New Economy. Industry boarders become meaningless; competition came from competitors you had not even heard before.

Therefore, my answer to Georg was very simple: I used the business model as my unit of analysis. He said fine. Just define it. Well, easy said difficult done. I was positive at the beginning that there must be something since we all got Masters of Business Administration so Business should be defined. Nope. Not really.

And again, it was Peter Drucker who had worked on this. He asked the simple questions “What business are you in?” and “What is the purpose of a business”.  And this is exactly what a business model should answer when used for.

[If you want to know something about the origins of business model thinking and my contribution to the topic read chapter two of my Ph.D. from summer 2001 at Google Books. I translated part of that chapter for a workshop Prof. Yves Pigneur and Alexander Osterwalder (a German speaker) organized in summer 2002, when they started their research on business models. (added Jan. 5th, 2017)]

Chesbrough and Rosenbloom (2002) explain the antecedents to the business model concept in their article “The Role of the Business Model in Capturing Value from Innovation: Evidence from Xerox Corporation’s Technology Spinoff Companies”. It is interesting that it was not the academic world that saw the necessity to have the business in focus for strategy but the real world. The business is where the competition is. Welcome to the real world.