Wikinomics (which I have now finished reading, so this will be one of my last posts about it, I promise!) has an interesting example of mass collaboration that not only gives an outlet to scientists' - or retired scientists') - unused expertise but also provides a secondary market for company patents: InnoCentive's mission statement, available on its website, is to "change the world and influence the lives of people everywhere by applying our planet’s human creativity and intelligence to solving the most important challenges facing commercial, governmental, and humanitarian organizations today", nothing less. Companies such as Procter&Gamble post engineering and scientific problems they face on the website and award cash prizes to people who come up with the best solution. The idea is not that someone in a makeshift lab in his home basement will devise from scratch the solution that eludes behemoth companies and their armies of workers, but that researchers with years of experience in, say, a different industry facing similar problems, will connect the dots and modify a product that had worked well in their own setting, putting pre-existing knowledge to good use.
Wikinomics also names the following "idea marketplaces" (which the authors, with their pronounced taste for making up words, dub ideagoras) build on the same principles: YourEncore (for retired scientists, "accelerating innovation through proven experience", in a trend that might well foreshadow the explosion of independent consulting by seventy-year-olds), NineSigma ("accelerating the innovation cycle"), InnovationXChange Network (the website has interesting, if vague, case studies snippets), Eureka Medical ("physician inventors help innovation-seeking companies"), and others.
NineSigma's website has links to two good BusinessWeek articles on innovation. The first one ("NineSigma: Nurturing Open Innovation") is a Q&A between a senior writer of the magazine and NineSigma's CEO; the interview touches upon many of the same themes as Wikinomics. (In particular, it emphasizes that solutions generally do not come from individuals but from companies in other industries - the key in making this work is to define the problem in a very focused way and in terms of basic science rather than applications.) The second one, "Billion Dollar Innovation," only mentions NineSigma in passing; it summarizes the findings of a study commissioned by the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation to "profil[e] innovative U.S. service companies." The whole (excellent) report, authored by the Peer Insight consultancy, is available here. The twelve companies profiled belong to one of the following four key sectors (see p.5 of the report, which is p.16 of the pdf file):
- insurance and financial services: The Hartford ["financial services and insurance provider"], Bank of America, MyBizHomepage ["web-based financial management dashboard for small businesses"],
- professional services: Crowe Chizek and Company ["US certified public accounting/management consulting firm"], NineSigma, LRA Worldwide ["Customer Experience Management"],
- wholesale and retail trade: Ingram Micro ["distributor of IT products and services"], Sitoa Corporation ["e-tailing engine connects product suppliers to online retailers"], American Girl [dolls] ,
- logistics: Total Quality Logistics ["third-party logistics provider"], ServiceBench ["integrates post-sale service management activities for clients"], Brivo Systems ["remote access control and building security solutions"].
As pointed out in the BW article, information technology plays an important role in these companies' strategy, which emphasizes customer experience - customers now want to receive the same service as if they were shopping on Amazon.com. (Very true: whenever I shop online, I want email notification when my order has shipped and delivery within 3-5 business days. Sadly, I rarely get both.) The BW article points to several traits shared by these innovators: management of some aspect of complexity in their customers' business, enhancement of productivity, increased transparency and mitigation of uncertainty in the company's operations. The report itself is very well documented and gives many more details on the challenges faced by these businesses and the solutions they implemented than what is usually found on the Web for free download - I highly recommend it. With its excellent schools and its commitment to innovation, Finland will certainly become a force to reckon with in the service-driven global economy.
Happy New Year everybody! Best wishes for 2008.