Opinion

A Study of NASA Scientists Shows How to Overcome Barriers to Open Innovation

By Hila Lifshitz-Assaf

It is important to communicate that innovation is not only about having an innovative technology or science; it is also about innovating the actual process of innovating.

Open innovation processes promise to enhance creative output, yet we have heard little about successful launches of new technologies, products, or services arising from these approaches. Certainly, crowdsourcing platforms (among other open innovation methods) have yielded striking solutions to hard scientific and technological problems—prominent examples being the Netflix predictive recommendation algorithm and the approach to reducing the weight of  GE jet engine brackets. But most R&D organizations are still struggling to reap the very real rewards of open innovation. We believe we’ve hit on an important hidden factor for this failure and that it holds the key to a successful integration and execution of open innovation methods.

We conducted an in-depth, three-year study at NASA’s Space Life Sciences Directorate to closely track the opportunities and challenges involved with open innovation in an incumbent R&D organization over time. Over the course of one year, we observed as NASA took a two-track approach to solving 14 strategic problems: The organization used both the traditional collaborative R&D model led by its own experts, and also open online innovation platforms led by crowds of non-domain experts.

The second approach led to relatively speedy solutions to three of the challenges and was particularly successful in the challenge of predicting dangerous solar storms, where it produced a breakthrough within a mere three months. But bringing the open-source solutions to life proved more challenging. Some of the directorate’s scientists and engineers  resisted the new approaches, citing process, budget, and procedural issues. The managers were able to solve those challenges, yet the tensions remained.

Read the full article as published by Harvard Business Review. 

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Hila Lifshitz-Assaf is an Assistant Professor of Information, Operations and Management Sciences.