Collaborating with external talent to innovate: Insights from InnoSchool — Before
This blog post is part of a series about collaborating with external talent in Open Innovation programs.
Before engaging in an open innovation program, three areas have to be considered. First, the motives that drive companies to consider open innovation. Second, the translation of innovation needs into a challenge brief. Third, the recruitment of internal and external participants. In this blog post, we provide insights into these three areas based on our experience at InnoSchool.
Define the purpose of Open Innovation for your strategy
Joining an open innovation program is a substantial investment. First, it requires a financial commitment. Second, it requires time and effort from managers and employees. Third, it requires mobilizing other resources. Fourth, companies should embrace an open mindset. Companies should carefully evaluate alternative approaches to open innovation before fully committing. Clear conversations about the company objectives need to take place. In this initial set up of an open innovation program, the company partners’ leadership has to align regarding how to approach the innovation challenge. Expectations from the program should be agreed upon and communicated. Failure to do so might lead to misunderstanding from the side of the innovation teams and delays in the development of a satisfying solution. When InnoSchool ended, one of the company partners reflected back to the initial misalignment in his team and failure to communicate as follows: “We probably knew what we wanted in our heads and probably it was not even the same… and so somewhere in the middle of the project, we had just a major pivot to come to a different solution”. There are different types of open innovation models. The choice of the most suitable models depends on the objective of the company. Here are four main models of open innovation:
- Crowdsourcing OI: Crowdsourcing is an open innovation strategy that leverages digital platforms to solicit feedback and ideas from online communities. Crowdsourcing is most useful for innovation problems of low to medium complexity that do not require high development investments.
- Coopetition OI: Coopetition is a form of open innovation whereby companies operating in the same industry cooperate and compete at the same time. Normally, cooperation and competition happen at different stages of new product development. For instance, they may cooperate on research and development and compete in distribution.
- Science based OI: Science-based open innovation involves the collaboration between companies and research institutions to bring scientific discoveries to the market. Companies may help to bridge the innovation gap, the gap between a scientific breakthrough and its real-world applications.
- Network OI: Network open innovation refers broadly to the collaboration of multiple players to solve highly complex challenges. The scope of the collaboration may vary from local ecosystems to a regional or supra-national level.
InnoSchool can be considered as a network approach to open innovation. External participants join the program with different skills and perspectives, which proved to be valuable to the company partners. Moreover, local regional partners contributed to the programs via non-monetary support and extensive mentoring.
Frame a compelling innovation challenge
Every company needs to innovate. But how do you search for innovation? Framing innovation challenges can be hard. Identifying the right innovation challenge is crucial for any search for new products, services, and business models. As remarked by one of InnoSchool company partners, suitable open innovation challenges are outside the current company core business, but they have future relevance: “The challenge we formulated was kind of outside with what we do as a business today, so it would be first a major challenge to get key personal or key staff to work on a project like that”. To choose from several challenges, consider these criteria:
- Potential impact: Solutions for this challenge can shift how the company does business, the way it is perceived in the industry and possibly even the industry itself. The new products or services have the potential to create a positive impact on customers, companies, and society. The company will be able to make a meaningful contribution by tackling this challenge.
- Strategic importance: This challenge is crucial for the company’s business. It is a top priority and the company has the commitment from the top to invest time, effort and resources to explore solutions.
- Outside of core business: Tackling the challenge provides opportunities for growth outside the company’s core business. It pushes company partners to work outside their comfort zone.
- Exploratory problem: The challenge to tackle is at a preliminary stage. The technology or trends fueling the challenge are new and the company doesn’t have a good handle on the problem internally.
- Inspiring and exciting: The challenge presents a compelling problem to tackle. The problem is tangible and something everyone “gets” without much explanation. It will inspire both employees and external talent to dedicate substantial effort to build and test ideas.
Embrace diversity in recruitment
Open innovation thrives on diversity. As noted by one of the company partners’ employees who joined InnoSchool, open innovation gives the possibility to break free from corporate rigid norms and mindset: “You have really new, fresh, open-minded talents and not as blindfolded or guided as typically you will get after working for twenty years for the same company”. One way to ensure diversity in open innovation programs is to take the following dimensions into consideration:
- Internal & external talent: Open innovation benefits from having both internal employees and external participants. On one side, the internal employees have knowledge about the company, and access to resources. On the other side, the external participants bring skills that the company might lack, a fresh approach to solving the problem, and entrepreneurial drive.
- Interdisciplinary skills: Interdisciplinary skills are crucial to address complex innovation problems. Open innovation teams need to have a balanced representation of diverse skills. At InnoSchool, we recruited participants with software engineering, product management, and design skills. Depending on the requirements of the challenges, other skills, such as data analysis and mechanical engineering may be included. Preferably, the skills of external participants need to complement those of the internal participants.
- Internationality: Innovation does not necessarily mean inventing completely new products and solutions. It can also mean applying existing innovations to new contexts. Having an international team helps to broaden the search field for innovation. International participants bring different perspectives and can provide insights from their own countries on how the product might be used in view of possible future expansions.
- Gender diversity: Gender diversity helps to develop more inclusive solutions. Open innovation entails abandoning the corporate perspective in order to involve other actors who may be knowledgeable or interested in the solution under development. Gender diversity helps to move towards a user-centric approach to innovation, by considering the needs of the broadest number of users. Having gender diversity in the open innovation team translates into a heightened sensitivity for gender inclusion during the customer development phase. In turn, this leads to a better grasp of the actual market for the solution.
 Personal Interview, with Smart Kitchen company partner InnoSchool 2019
 Yeolan Lee et al., “Why Do Experts Solve Complex Problems Using Open Innovation? Evidence from the Us Pharmaceutical Industry,” California Management Review 62, no. 1 (2019).
 Personal Interview with Chef Platform company partner InnoSchool 2019
 Personal interview with Smart Kitchen InnoSchool participant 2019