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Open Innovation in the Idea Factory

Why is research dying in the private sector? Is there any “R” left in R&D? Although we've certainly seen a decline in recent years, those researchers and scientists left in the private sector appear to have battened down the hatches. This observation was reinforced for me recently as we completed an “open innovation” engagement for a leading developer and manufacturer of medical devices and scientific instrumentation.

We were asked to come in and jumpstart an open innovation culture for this client and to that end convene an innovation summit to educate researchers, scientists, PhD's, and project leads about collaboration with inside and outside partners to further new ideas. What quickly became clear in talking to these stakeholders was a pervasive ”pull your punches” attitude that blocked new ideas from coming to the table. Unwittingly the company had trained these highly educated, talented researchers to think about innovation in the context of topline business objectives. The values of an innovation culture at work; fidelity to an original idea, staking a hypothesis to surface ideas, having the motivation and enthusiasm to bring forward what the researchers considered to be a good idea - had been lost.

Open innovation aside, the research engine in the factory was not willing to surface new ideas and going at innovation culture from the top down in this context does not work. Open innovation as practiced by large organizations in the private sector is, more often than not, directed innovation. Send out the scouts to find the technologies that will fill the gaps in an intellectual property portfolio. Although our stated assignment was to nurture the values of open innovation for this client, the true benefit to the organization surfaced through the one-on-one contact with the researchers that helped them think about reinvention, reinvention of their attitude rather than the invention of the research process. This move away from an organic research mindset does not have to be inevitable in private sector invention. A conscious reinforcement of a bottom-up approach to invention, similar to what is valued in academia, if practiced over time, will lay the foundation for effective open innovation practices. It's a longer row to hoe but gets to the root of the problem.


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