For more than a decade, we’ve studied open innovation and have taught thousands of executives and students how to innovate in a more distributed, decentralized and participatory way. We have also witnessed how companies have used hackathons and other forms of open innovation to generate heaps of creative ideas that never reach the point of implementation, leading to frustration among employees and partners. Open innovation has the potential to widen the space for value creation: It allows for many more ways to create value, be it through new partners with complementary skills or by unlocking hidden potential in long-lasting relationships.
In a crisis, open innovation can help organizations find new ways to solve pressing problems and at the same time build a positive reputation. Most importantly it can serve as a foundation for future collaboration — in line with sociological research demonstrating that trust develops when partners voluntarily go the extra mile, providing unexpected favors to each other. While concerns over intellectual property, return on investments, and various unforeseen consequences of open innovation are all valid, what we are experiencing now is an opportunity to innovate through and beyond the crisis. We have discovered a number of lessons that can help companies to not only take advantage of open innovation during the Covid-19 crisis, but to embrace open innovation once the pandemic is over. As the initial open innovation enthusiasm has settled, companies often realize that they rely on voluntary and active participation of employees and partners to succeed — traditional means of command and control have little reach.
Other developers are driven by strong ethical concerns, vigorously opposing any move to develop software that cannot be inspected, modified, and openly shared. And we know that when it comes to big thorny problems like Covid-19, new partners are necessary to provide complementary skills and perspectives.First, top management has assumed a lot of the risk associated with new partners, by sending strong messages that open innovation is the way to go. When companies across the globe are affected by the same crisis, and many are searching for new ways to conduct business, a combinatorial exercise suggests that there are many better partners available now than a month ago. These initiatives are often the tip of the iceberg, and successful open innovation often requires operational and structural changes to how business is done. Perhaps our own sector, higher education, could stand as a beacon of hope that open innovation can work on a truly grand scale — and that a conservative sector can change. Having established new ways of doing open innovation during a crisis can then bring much-needed flexibility and, in the end, secure the company’s viability.