What Companies Can Learn From the Open Innovation Movement

Large companies are tapping into an open resource of knowledge to solve their biggest problems. Here's why small businesses should consider following suit.
February 24, 2015

Many business owners talk about the talent shortage—how there aren’t enough qualified candidates in tech and science. While that may be true, there are more companies taking novel approaches to this challenge. For one thing, the concept of a freelance engineer is becoming a reality. Traditionally, engineers and designers needed to be part of a supply chain, fitting in with the other aspects of production as part of a company. But all of that is changing as we connect the right people. These changes are the result of the rise of what my co-author Saj-nicole Joni and I call “connectional intelligence.”

The problem we face now is not a shortage of good ideas, but rather how we bring together the people with ideas with those who can carry out the solutions. Disruptive companies like InnoCentive and Quirky show new ways that ideas can flow in today’s world and the amazing collaboration that can occur when companies open their doors to nontraditional sources of knowledge. It’s about connecting those who have pinpointed the problem with those who might be able to solve it. 

Building Connectional Intelligence

Never before have companies been able to connect with so much diverse talent. You may be able to harness this connectional intelligence in your own community with these four tips. 

1. Ask New Crowds and Communities to Help

Encourage collaboration between communities so everyone has a voice at the table. InnoCentive, for example, takes the traditional model of a research and development department and opens it up to a global community of scientists and problem solvers. Whether the solvers have jobs in science or just participate as a hobby doesn’t matter. This gives you access to people whose credentials might not even qualify them for a job, but have some specialization that can offer a solution. By asking the world to engage in solving global problems, you can tap into previously inaccessible resources of knowledge and can attract more loyal customers who are attracted to this collaboration.

2. Strategically Target Communities and Networks You Want to Reach (and Know What You Want From Them)

Open innovation is not just throwing a general problem to the world and hoping someone else solves it. To get the most out of freelance problem solvers, it’s important to figure out what part of the problem really needs solving and what skill sets are required. Sometimes just explaining the problem to an outsider in simple terms helps clarify it for you, especially if you're deeply mired in the issue. This is a good methodology for internal problem-solving, too. By breaking down a problem and figuring out whose skills and knowledge best fits each part, you can maximize everyone’s abilities. But don’t pigeonhole people or communities, as you might find that people have a much broader knowledge base than you thought. Be specific in your goals, not in the type of person you ask for help.

3. Break Stupid Rules or Processes That Are Holding Back Progress

Quirky's founder Ben Kaufman has joked about the time it took to build the Empire State Building (410 days) versus a potato peeler (two years and seven months). Kaufman looked at the issues that stand in the way of getting new products to market—financing, manufacturing and distribution—and created a company that breaks those rules. By turning product development on its head and streamlining the process, Quirky opened up the number and diversity of products that could be produced and sold.

4. Look to Your Competition for Collaboration Opportunities

Rather than competing, innovative product manufacturing companies are teaming up. Although it might seem heretical to our ideas of capitalist competition, the benefits of the open innovation model provides major companies with access to inventors' creative products and ideas. For example, one of Quirky’s most popular products is a “smart air conditioner” called Aros, created in partnership with GE.

Connectional intelligence is a new work mindset that is here to stay. It may help you find talent to solve pressing challenges beyond your traditional employees and can open up the potential for new business partnerships to further your business' success. Connectional intelligence could transform how you approach business altogether.

Erica Dhawan is the co-author of the new book Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence with Saj-nicole Joni, and CEO of Cotential, a global consultancy that enables organizations to accelerate the connectedness of their employees, teams and clients. Follow Dhawan on Facebook and TwitterShe is also a member of YEC, an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs.

Photo: Getty Images