Friday, December 15, 2017

Open Innovation and Closed Minds: Why NASA Used Open Innovation Sometimes but Not Always

Open innovation is heralded as a way to advance technology and product innovation quickly and cheaply. It is modeled on the open source software movement, which is based on computer programmers donating their time to build software components, check their own work, check others’ work, and correct mistakes. Among the famous software suites made through open source, Linux is a computer operating system that is used in everything from cellular phones to web servers, and is often involved when you are retrieving and reading blog posts like this one. Open innovation extends this model to innovations outside computer programming by organizations posting problems that anyone interested can help solve.


The idea is to use volunteer efforts to get innovations for free (almost a Dire Straits lyric), which sounds like a good deal. Unfortunately, this has proven difficult for many organizations, and research in Administrative Science Quarterly by Hila Lifshitz-Assaf has found out why. Her careful study looks at an open innovation initiative in a very innovative high-tech organization: NASA. In 2009, NASA tried an open innovation experiment that led to some speedy, inexpensive, and impressive solutions. But its relationship with open innovation since then has been inconsistent, with some NASA professionals using it to great success and some not. Why the difference?

In a word, the difference is identity. Innovations are typically done by highly educated people who are trained to follow careful processes specific to their organization and to their scientific and technological specialization. These people have a professional identity built around their unique skills as problem solvers for the organization. For people with such an identity, what does it feel like to have amateurs solve problems instead of them? Open innovation draws much of its strength from individuals who may lack formal education, don’t follow the predefined process, and aren’t even employees of the organization. Naturally there is an inherent conflict between the insiders and the open innovation use of outsiders, and some insiders are tempted to seal the organization off from the outside sources of innovations.

Why did some parts of NASA embrace open innovation? Again the answer is identity. Those who could redefine their professional identity to be a solution seeker, not a problem solver, became adept users of open innovation. For a solution seeker, the existence of a solution is what matters – not who made it, and not how it was made. It is a completely different way of thinking of oneself and of solving problems.

The division between problem solvers and solution seekers resulted in NASA professionals adopting various approaches to the open innovation initiatives advocated by their leadership. Problem solvers maintained boundaries, either explicitly or through the pretense of openness but actual closure. That way they could maintain their focus on their individual efforts and internal innovations. Solution seekers looked for outside solutions, sometimes simply embracing externally developed solutions, and sometimes adapting external solutions so that the final solution became a mixture of outside and inside effort. Problem solvers may hold tight to their identity, but open innovation is sure to continue gaining ground. “Get your innovations for nothing, get your praise for free” is an appealing tune.  

Lifshitz-Assaf, Hila.2017. "Dismantling Knowledge Boundaries at NASA: The Critical Role of Professional Identity in Open Innovation." Administrative Science Quarterly, Forthcoming.

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