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To succeed in Open Innovation, we must look into its shadows

Recognizing when Open Innovation does not work and why, will give the paradigm true integrity. And offer us new problems to solve.

Photo of Alina Wernick
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Open innovation is a new, more transparent and collaborative way to innovate. When understood as permeability of firms boundaries to harness inward and outward knowledge flows, open innovation promises us more active markets for technology, more transparent ways of innovating and faster cycles of innovation. When seen as collaborative production of public goods, Open Innovation may offer us more democratic ways to innovate, access to information, goods and services for larger groups of people. More recently Open Innovation has been applied to solve societal problems. Both governments and NGO’s may harness it to work towards social goals such alleviation of poverty, more environmentally and ethically sustainable economy and creation of fairer and more prosperous society. We are only in the beginning, and I am certain, that Open Innovation will be paving for years new solutions that were unimaginable at this day.

Yet, I argue, that for us to truly learn and understand, how to innovate openly and succeed with Open Innovation in the future, we also need to look into the shadows of Open Innovation.  And by shadows I mean attempts innovate openly that did not go according to plan: projects that failed, that did not reach their objectives, that faced considerable difficulties in the process; problems that remained unsolved. Open innovation entails innovating in a new way, and trying new things is always messy.

It is very crucial to look at the successes of open innovation and see how they can be applied in ever newer contexts. Yet analysis of the shadows of open innovations alongside with its successful cases has the potential to allow us to understand Open Innovation much better.

- What were the problems and in which instance and period of time did they occur?

- What is the nature of these problems? Are the problems a matter of management, communication, or design? Are they perhaps challenges in funding, commitment or other incentives?

- What were the conflicting interests or trade-offs involved?

- Did problems relate to the institutional or legal framework?

- Were they resolved over time, and if so then how?

- Have solutions to the problem been found in any similar project?

I hypothesize, that problems related to open innovation would fall into three categories, each of which will have different implications Open Innovation community.

  • Straightforward, more practical problems related for example management, communication or design of the project. A solution exists to these problems or they can be resolved relatively easily and/or avoided by learning.  Awareness of such challenges more open innovation projects to succeed in the future.
  • Larger, more complex and more prevalent issues related Open Innovation processes. Awareness of such challenges related to open innovation provide the paradigm an opportunity to self-correct and innovate around it’s problems, possibly though multi-disciplinary problem-solving.
  •  Problems that are truly difficult to solve. The challenges may derive for example from insufficient incentives to be open, from institutional constraints such as prevailing public policy or from legislation that is not aligned with Open Innovation paradigm. Moreover, these issues may point out more fundamental problems with open innovation such the limits of applicability of the open paradigm. Solutions to these problems may require changes in public policies, newer and more relevant incentives, creation of institutions supporting innovation and even changes in legislation to support the objectives of open innovation, even if the strength of the paradigm does not reach there by itself. Yet.

Open Innovation has a lot of promises. It is a positive, even idealistic innovation paradigm, which is only beginning to discover all its potential applications both in business and beyond. Studying its pitfalls may be unattractive both for practitioners and researchers of Open Innovation, since it is new way of doing things, and changing from familiar patters of innovating requires persuasion about the strengths of the paradigm. Yet, counter-intuitively, gaining knowledge about where and when Open Innovation does not work and why, will give the paradigm true integrity and strength. And in the process provide us with new problems to solve.


Arora A, Fosfuri A and Gambarella A, Markets of Technology. The Economics of Innovation and Corporate Strategy. (The MIT Press 2001)

Chesbrough H, Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating and Profiting from Technology (Harvard Business School Press 2003)

von Hippel E, Democratizing Innovation (The MIT Press 2005)

Vanhaverbeke W, Chesbrough H and West J, ‘Surfing the New Wave of Open Innovaton Research’ in Chesbrough H, Vanhaverbeke W and West J (eds), New Frontiers in Open Innovation (Oxford University Press 2014)

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Alina Wernick


Join the conversation:

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Thanks Alina for this provocation. You are right that there is a lot to learn from failures, and you are right to point that there have been some in the field of open innovation. Interestingly, one of my papers, forthcoming in Information Systems Research looks at a comparative case study of 2 organizations who were encountered the possibility of using crowdsourcing for innovation. One rejected it; the other one embraced it. We show in the paper that part of the explanation is grounded in the epistemic stance (beliefs enacted in practice about what is knowledge? how can we develop knowledge?) that each organization holds. 
Regarding your 3 hypotheses on the sources of problems, I find your distinctions interesting and useful although I'm not sure I agree on the hierarchy you assume. In particular, I would not agree with your first point. Management and communication of the problem are not "straightforward", nor easy to solve. 

I'd love to read your dissertation when it is published.

Photo of Alina Wernick

Hi Anne-Laure! Thank you for your thoughtful comments and insights from the upcoming paper, would be happy to read it. I do agree firms participation on open innovation to depends a lot on how they understand the knowledge being created. I have had some analogous experiences when discussing firm's participation in multiparty R&D projects. Coming from IP law, I was looking into how firms decide to share their IP in a project, and it appeared that the firms that were willing to share were those who were a) aware of what relevant information they had b) convinced that what they shared it in the project and developed collaboratively, would bring them more value than keeping it to themselves. 

Thank you for your comments on the hypotheses.  I tried to write them in very abstractly/roughly to considers the variety of disciplines studying open innovation, but it was challenging to fully depart from the legal viewpoint. I appreciate your input from another discipline and I do agree that management and communication challenges are never simple.

In the first point, by practical meant situations to which a solution exists or it is relatively easy to obtain or create. In the context of law, this could mean for example a development of  a fitting licensing agreement with some effort, but generally something that a normal lawyer could do. Could you think of equivalent definition in communication or management practices, or is the hypothesis unfitting given the fluidity and complexity of the processes?

The second hypothesis refers to more fundamental tensions in open innovation, irrespective of the discipline from which we view them. In the context of law, a solution to problems of the second category could mean for example a development of of a novel licensing mechanism for a new, previously unknown way to engage in open innovation. 

Examples of the third category would be actual market failures such as lack of incentives of individual user innovators to disseminate their innovations( Jong JPJ and others, ‘Market failure in the diffusion of consumer-developed innovations: Patterns in Finland’ 44 Research Policy 1856) or in the legal context, situations where private ordering, though contracts and licensing practices is not sufficient to enable open innovation, but it's success would require a change in legislation.