5 Questions with Dr. Karim Lakhani

Posted by abingham on Jul 25, 2008 2:46:45 PM

Liz Moise:
I’m joined by Dr. Karim R. Lakhani, Professor at Harvard Business School. Dr. Lakhani, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. You’ve watched InnoCentive grow for quite a few years now. I’m sure our Solvers may be familiar with your research study, published a few years back. Could you tell me in a few sentences, what your conclusions were on InnoCentive, in that study?

Dr. Karim Lakhani:
I worked with Lars Bo Jeppesen from the Copenhagen Business School along with InnoCentive staff to understand the effectiveness of the problem solving process at InnoCentive.

Most problem solving involves effort by the problem holder to search for the relevant knowledge that will help create an effective and workable solution. However, many studies have shown that this search for knowledge is quite “local,” i.e. problem holders only access knowledge that they are familiar with and rarely do they go outside of their fixed views of the problem or personal knowledge bases. With InnoCentive – the problem holder is actually doing a “broadcast search,” i.e. they broadcast their solution requirements to the whole world – with the hopes of finding someone that has the relevant knowledge that can help create the solution. The problem holder goes from being a problem Solver to a solution seeker.

Our study examined 166 Challenges that were broadcast on InnoCentive. We combined this with a web-based survey of InnoCentive Solvers. We found that as the number of unique scientific interests in the overall submitter population increased, the higher the probability that a Challenge was successfully solved. In other words, diversity of potential scientific approaches to a problem was a significant predictor of problem solving success in InnoCentive.

We also found that InnoCentive solvers were motivated as much by intrinsic motivation factors (learning, joy of problem solving, intellectual challenge etc) as they were by winning the award money. Both were significant correlates with being a successful Solver. However, there was a negative correlation between these factors thus some Solvers are motivated by fun and others by money!

Finally InnoCentive achieved a ~30% solve rate with the Challenges posted – while there is no empirical research available to judge its effectiveness – conversation with R&D executives indicate that this solve rate is quite high.

You mentioned the following in the recent New York Times article this week

Dr. Lakhani said his study of InnoCentive found that “the further the problem was from the Solver’s expertise, the more likely they were to solve it,” often by applying specialized knowledge or instruments developed for another purpose.

For example, he said, the brain might be thought of as a biological system, but “certain brain problems may not be solvable by taking a biological approach. You may want to cast it as an electrical engineering approach. An electrical engineer will come in and say, ‘Oh, here’s the answer for you.’ They have not thought of themselves as being neuroscientists but now they can approach the problem from the point of view of electrical engineering.”


Can you elaborate on this idea?

Yes this was quite a surprising finding for us – but it makes sense if we think about it. In our survey we asked the Solvers if the problem they created a solution for inside their field of expertise, at the boundary of their field of expertise or outside their field of expertise. The regression results showed that the further the Solvers rated the problem was from their own field of expertise the more likely they were to have solved the problem! So InnoCentive Solvers were actually bridging knowledge fields – taking solutions and approaches from one area (their own specialty) and applying it to other different areas. We have often heard that innovation occurs at the boundary of disciplines and now we have systematic evidence that this indeed is the case at InnoCentive. History of science is filled with such episodes, for example molecular biology was established by the movement of physicists into biology. They brought with them their tools and understandings of particles and applied it to biology.

In a more general sense, as Scott Page from the University of Michigan has shown in his book “The Difference,” problem solving requires the application of heuristics and perspectives. In many cases a problem that is difficult under one heuristic/perspective pair may be relatively easy – even trivially easy – under a different heuristic/perspective pair. The key is the application of a variety of “different” approaches to the problem – so that the “home field” for the problem does not end up constraining the solution. So my neurological example shows that sometimes brain problems may be better solved with an electrical engineering approach instead of a biochemical approach. Indeed most of the cutting edge treatments for epilepsy now involve electrical engineering and signal processing approaches.

I’ve heard from many of our Solvers say that they are thrilled to be able to work on challenges both inside and outside their disciplines. Often, they tell me they could not put a Challenge down once they read it, because they knew they had a chance of solving it, even though they knew they might not win the award. Open Innovation is truly changing the way people can work, around the world, not to mention the way that companies innovate. How do you see this playing out in the innovation space, in the next 5-10 years, as Solvers begin to tap into these kinds of opportunities for work?

Open source software really showed the way in how innovation can be democratized. Many R&D executives now realize that there is a tremendous amount of knowledge outside their own organizations. The challenge is to find a way to access this knowledge and engage the minds of many people in the problem solving process.

Open source software has radically changed the practices and business models in the software industry. I expect that open innovation approaches as practiced by InnoCentive and others will do the same for R&D and other fields. Solvers will find an increasing willingness by some of the most proprietary research organizations to experiment and then regularly use outsiders in their innovation process. I expect to see that leading organizations will be very transparent about the innovation problems they face and their willingness to engage people from all fields and disciplines.

Surely the face of innovation is changing quickly. What would you say to the InnoCentive Solvers, about their role in innovation today?

Its really my privilege to observe and study such a fundamental shift in the way we think R&D should be done. InnoCentive Solvers have shown the presence of a large and effective scientific community that is typically not accessed by firms – I sincerely hope that R&D organizations figure out how to tap into this vast pool of talent and knowledge.

In addition, the participation of non-profit foundations on InnoCentive is also very exciting. Many of the toughest challenges we face in the sciences, medicine and environment will require creative solutions that cross boundaries. The willingness of the non-profits to try alternative innovation models shows the importance of the InnoCentive Solvers from a variety of fields in the problem solving process.

I’d like to conclude by asking you what you’re working on these days? Is there anything you’d like to share?

Overall my research agenda looks at distributed and collaborative technical problem solving. I am trying to develop empirical evidence and frameworks that help us understand under what circumstances do we choose open vs. closed problem solving regimes.

One project I am pursuing in collaboration with InnoCentive is to better understand what makes problems solvable? While we know that the problems that attract diverse problem Solvers are more likely to be solved – I am trying to understand what is it about the problem itself that attracts diverse problem Solvers in the first place? If InnoCentive Solvers have any ideas – I would love to hear them. Please contact me at krl@hbs.edu

Thanks very much Dr. Lakhani. Readers we also welcome your comments and discussion here, just add a comment below.

Topics: Innovation Insights, Solvers

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