By Frank Piller, chair professor of management and the director of the Technology & Innovation Management Group at RWTH Aachen University, Germany
I have to admit that I was very skeptical. Before the first edition of the "Seeks Solutions" approach taking place in Quebec of Local Open Innovation in Dec 2010, I didn't believe that ten tough technical problems can be solved from about 220 people in just one day. Luckily, I was wrong, and "Quebec Seeks Solutions (QSS) 2010" became a large success. (http://mass-customization.de/2010/12/from-market-places-to-problem-places-report-of-the-quebec-seeks-solutions-conference-a-new-method-fo.html).
So this year I was much more optimistic. The team behind QSS 2012 again did a great job in organizing an outstanding event. And the solution process even worked better. Out of the ten projects, all but two were solved, and also for the two remaining problems, important ideas for a path towards solution were developed.
Today I consider the "Seeks Solutions" approach as an important complementary method of open innovation. Why does this approach work so well? In my keynote at the opening conference of this year's event, I reflected a bit on the elements that make this personal, local and offline approach of OI so effective:
(1) The right level of Q. Brian Uzzi, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University, defined a measure of "social intimacy" to express the right level of closeness and openness in an innovation group, called Q. If you only collaborate with people you know well, you may be not really innovative, as you just tap into knowledge and experiences already known (this group would have a low Q). However, if you collaborate with new persons only, this also may not lead to an optimal outcome, as you miss trust and a common understanding. Groups are most innovative when they have a medium Q.
And this is exactly what a local open innovation initiative facilitates. People share a common regional background, language, common values, but still come from different organizations and disciplinary backgrounds. I am sure that Brian Uzzi would find quite some optimal levels of Q in the groups working on the solutions at QSS.
(2) Exploration AND exploitation. Open innovation often is a great way to explore new domains of knowledge, to find these new knowledge stocks at the first place, and then to transfer them into the company. But according to our research, at this point many OI projects stop – and the external knowledge never is exploited in the seeking firm. Often, a solution provider is just too far away, comes from a different background, or has no capacity to work with the seeking firm in implementing its input.
Here, the regional focus of local open innovation provides a large advantage. Often, the solution provider just sits next door, but always is in rather close proximity, speaks the same language, and share the same business culture. So any follow up or continuous work can be organized much easier, enabling the newly discovered solution to be put into practice.
(3) Addressing multiple incentives. Finally, QSS addresses all the different facets of motivation which have been shown to be important for open innovation:
• Social exchange.
The unique element of the Seeks Solution approach is that is addressed all these incentives in a quite balanced way, and that the same approach provides a common platform for people with very different motive structures.
Together, QSS 2012 again was a unique experience and a large success. So I am already looking forward to the next edition!