Crowdsourcing innovation was the topic of a keynote presentation by Steve Rader of NASA at the July 2021 R&D Management conference. It provided a stimulating example of a large organisation using crowdsourcing to seek possible ideas and solutions from outside that might help with its innovation process, explains David Probert, but also some important considerations.
Organizations are increasingly turning to crowdsourcing as an open innovation tool to contact external people who might be able to provide ideas and knowledge to assist with their innovations challenges – such people are termed ‘solvers’. In many cases intermediaries are engaged to organise the crowdsourcing campaign, and for potential solvers – usually experts in specific areas of knowledge – such campaigns can provide an attractive opportunity to extend their influence and commercialise their specialised knowledge.
However this invitation to openness contains within it an inherent paradox – the ‘fundamental tension between knowledge sharing and knowledge protection’. This paradox, and the practical means of addressing it – is the subject of an interesting paper in Research Policy*, published in 2019. In this article, we summarise the key findings that might help solvers, seekers (of solutions) and intermediaries involved in this challenging but potentially rewarding process.
The paper describes the following paradox facing solvers:
Individuals that act as providers of knowledge need to exchange (codified and tacit) solution information to attract seekers and develop a solution, while they need to protect their knowledge base from unwanted knowledge leakages and spillovers.
Drawing on extensive interviews and surveys with participants in intermediated crowdsourcing contests, the research develops a rich picture of both the real life challenges facing all parties in the crowdsourcing process, and the practical means whereby solvers try to protect their interests. A better understanding of the implications of these challenges and practices will help to promote more effective engagement of all parties in the process.
Crowdsourcing innovation – seven areas of practice
Research discovered that solvers (typically R&D professionals or academic researchers) may use seven different practice areas to protect their knowledge while engaging in a crowdsourcing project. Each area can make use of various methods:
1. Patent thicketing: Building patent walls/thickets around certain areas/technological fields; having a large number of patents; being willing to engage in litigation
2. Patent pending: Possessing a provisional patent application; filing a provisional patent; maintaining secrecy, while protecting
3. Agreeing on non-disclosure: Signing a confidentiality agreement; defining the common knowledge used; legally defending technologies protected
4. Selective revealing: Partially disclosing technologies; selectively revealing knowledge; maintaining secrecy over valuable information
5. Solution black-boxing: Providing a sample; solving a problem in a black-box; making the sample not accessible
6. Controlling complementary assets: Providing services to use technologies; configuring and maintaining machinery; selling supplies
7. Intermediary bypassing: Knowing and connecting to seeker; bypassing the platform of the intermediary; pursuing direct communication with seeker
Areas 1, 2 & 3 may be described as formal practices, in that they require legal assistance. Areas 4, 5, 6 & 7 are informal in the sense that they may be applied without legal assistance.
The sharing-protecting paradox
Effective engagement of solvers in crowdsourcing calls depends on those solvers feeling confident that their knowledge will be adequately protected during the process. At the same time, if they are over-protective, the barriers to communication which result may prevent seekers from developing sufficient confidence in the proposed solution to go ahead with the deal.
Solvers should consider carefully which of these practices is/are best suited to their particular knowledge when taking part in a crowdsourcing project, and take care not to inhibit effective communication of their ideas and knowledge.
Understanding these practices, and the motivation of solvers to deploy them, will help seekers (often R&D managers in large organisations) and intermediaries (often consultants engaged in running the crowdsourcing project) to work more effectively with solvers, and enhance the chances of a successful outcome for all parties.
A better balance of the sharing-protecting paradox is achieved when everyone concerned appreciates the needs and challenges of others.
Post written by David Probert (with thanks to Frank Tietze)
*Reconceptualizing the paradox of openness: How solvers navigate sharing-protecting tensions in crowdsourcing. J. Nils Foege, Ghita Dragsdahl Lauritzen, Frank Tietze, Torsten Oliver Salge Research Policy 48 (2019) 1323 – 1339