Users as innovators Seminar, March 16/03 @ CBS


To a rationalized, expansionist and at the same time centralized, clamorous, and spectacular production corresponds another production, called consumption. ”
Michel de Certeau – The Practice of Everyday Life.

I finally post here the notes of the lecture on “users as innovators” I attended on Friday at Copenhagen Business School. All my apologizes for the delay.
Speakers and themes were :

1/ ‘Users as innovators’ by Eric von Hippel, Honorary Doctor, CBS, Professor, Management of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, MIT Sloan School of Management

2/ ‘Research on converting user innovation into new products’ Christoph Hienerth, Associate Professor, Department of Industrial Economics and Strategy, CBS

3/’Learning from user innovation at Coloplast’ by Peter Kragh, Senior Project Manager, MBA Responsible, Voice of Customer Research in Front End Innovation, Ostomy Care Division, Coloplast A/S.

Von Hippel started by making clear that he was representing a community and that user-innovation should be seen as a collective activity.
DK is at the very leading edge in user centered innovation and is the 1st country in the world to make user-driven innovation (UDI) a national priotity. This was decided in 2005 and about 160m kr (20m€) were allocated in order to secure future development in the field. It seems this amount is on the rise following recent political decisions, but no details were provided…

He argued that UDI is going to be the “next paradigm in innovation” affecting not only private companies’s strategies but also national policies as a whole.
As time goes new countries such as Finland, the UK or Germany are paying increasingly attention to UDI and wwish to make it a source of competitive advantage.

Starting point : Unlike well-accepted belief, users are the innovators. However this reality does not appear as R&D and is therefore neglected.
UDI gather a fast growing academic community across the world. I quickly identified about 50 people on the list provided by VH and noticed that there was none from France…

Central to the definition of user-innovation, by contrast to manufacturer innovation, is the benefit that one is expected to secure when engaging into innovation :
User innovation (benefit by using) < > manufacturer innovation (benefit in selling)

Is innovation has become a motto of nowadays capitalism, where innovation comes from ?
When tracking back innovation to figure out where they come from, one notes that 5-7 years before any commercial device were designed/manufactured, users had work-out a solution. The value added provided by those DIY-innovators was so evident that, after a few years, manufacturers came-up with new products including the benefits imagined by users.

Users act as “bricoleurs” (here, I could not help thinking about De Certeau founding work on the tactics of the consumers, far from the passivity long assumed) take pieces from other machines and put them together to articulate a working solution to their problems.

The respective role of users & manufacturers in driving innovation varies across fields and product categories. (eg: engineering plastics vs scientific instruments)
Why those differences?
Users => novel functional capability – Need information
Mft => Dimension of functional merit (?) – Solution information

MANY users innovate, not only a few of them as one could have expected! Ordinary from 10% to 40% according to product/service categories in consumer and business industries. (surgery – sport equipment – software)
Why ?
There are more and more user friendly design tools that can be used by users in order to alter the manufactured product they purchased. It is becoming cheaper (ex. all sotfwares that do not require “real” construction, mock up, raw materials, expensive attempts, etc)
⇒ technical barriers to innovation lead by users are being removed. Here it seemed to me that the transformation of space with the emergence of the internet was a central feature of the new practices.

Not only do users innovate but they COLLABORATE together!
Thanks to technology too, they easily join in communities to exchange information and learn collectively. Their motivation is not about making money because they will already profit from improve usability and functionality. This is where their utility comes from, in economic terms.
Consequently, user communities have an advantage over manufacturers in order to foster innovation as they can tap into limitless human and knowledge resources while those of companies are quite restricted in comparison. For example there are about 20 designers at Lego vs 20,000 enthusiasts member of local Lego communities. How could the creativity of the former beat that of the latest ?

Other example mentioned included : Zeroprestige : a user kytesurfing community that often outperform the design of the best manufacturers. I don’t know whether Loic Le Meur knows them… The reason for that seemed to be the broad network of various an
A strikingly important consequences of the discrepancies in terms of organizational flexibility, is that user-communities will increasingly design while manufacturers will only… manufacture !

Von Hippel stressed that the issue is not about collecting information regarding user undisclosed needs through sophisticated ethnographic methods BUT rather to organize the active participation of user in the actual design process. Clustering user-innovation and entangling that new paradigm into territory through the participation of all stakeholders is the role of the Danish innovation Lab around Lars Bo Jeppesen; Christopher Lettl; Christop Hienneth.

In conclusion, user-centered agenda in strategy ought to be defended and promoted in order to counter-balance the overwhelmingly dominant manufacturer centered agenda.

Christoph Hienerth, Associate Professor, Department of Industrial Economics and Strategy, CBS

Question to be answered : What are lead users characterstics and background ? How to identify the right people ?!

Who can contribute best to innovation ?
Steps : identify needs and trends / identify users /arrange workshops ⇒ get input !

Interesting to see all the selection, the methodologies and experience it requires in order to identify and then work with the users. This means that user are not free-floating agents. Rather they are themselves socially constructed by manufacturers and forces.

Characteristc of lead users :
– experience (how to evaluate ?)
– source of benefit (selling/using)
– Market distance
– Market origin
– Technical distance
– Technical knowledge
– Innovative activities related to the target market

Some of the Q&As

What about examples from services and non-tangible products ?
Isn’it more difficult to have users make the improvements they need in a financial services ?

What kind of consequences for R&D people in companies engaging into user centered innovation?
Not only risk for job but rather new kind of skills and work-habits to develop in order to incorporate the input from external resources. Management, relationship and non-strictly technical skills seem increasingly needed.

Some personal comments

The discussions on users’creative skills in improving the usability of the products they buy should not be distinguished from the symbolic aspects of that consumption which are complementary innovative ways to innovate beyond mere utility. Brands should therefore engage in user innovation with the double ambition to understand utilitarian/practical and experiential/symbolic creativity in users, beyond what both engineers and brand managers had thought of.


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