Practitioner Insights in to Open Innovation

Being cynical, I told someone the other day that innovation seems to be a lot like teenage sex: Everyone talks about it but no one actually does it. Today, I got a first-hand glimpse of people who really do it. Innovation, that is.

From the challenges of hiring to the cost benefits of  open innovation (OI), senior management at Psion Teklogix spoke candidly about their approach to harnessing creativity inside and outside the company.

Their comments came in a Twitter Chat organized by open-innovation guru Stefan Lindegaard (@lindegaard) and included three members of the Psion senior management team: CEO John Conoley (@johnCEOatPsion), Chief Technology Officer Mike Doyle (@mdoyle_ptx) and Chief Marketing Officer Nick Eades (@Nick_at_Psion). Psion, itself, is a Canada-based multinational that produces an extensive line of rugged, mobile-computing devices.

“We decided to embrace open innovation at Psion to be faster and competitively unpredictable,” said Conoley. But while competitive pressures are driving the company to find ways of bringing better offerings to market, he noted, “[The] real question may be do we know what we are doing? Answer [is] NO but we are creating conditions not outcomes.”

“A hearing (listening) company is more agile and more effective,” Eades said.

Asked how Psion recognizes innovative personalities when hiring, Conoley said they are not sure they do recognize it, but they are starting to attract people who see it as a benefit of working for Psion. “Hiring and the company culture, are also one and the same… and we’re working on both,” Eades said.

Doyle said Psion had “doing a form of open innovation for a long time, but not really formalizing it.” After doing some research and weighing up the pros and cons, management decided OI was the way forward. Doyle said it is more effective than closed innovation where all research and development is handled entirely in house. “With closed innovation you had better get the requirements right up front. With open innovation you get feedback early and can adapt,” he said.

Asked if they were afraid of losing good people or ideas, Eades said, “We’re still fairly nervous about people leaving, but our site is deliberately open to view, and our new products will be too. What gives us some (!) confidence is that you’d have to copy the our business model to be able to respond.” Conoley was more sanguine, and was not worried about people leaving. “I don’t care if some things go wrong though, its no reason to stop,” he said. “I think that is a concern for any tech company, but with a good strategy people are more apt to stay,” Doyle said.

“What we have done since is really push the envelope” with the company’s OI website, Ingenuity Working, said Eades. “We don’t know for sure yet but inegnuityworking.com might be most important Psion innovation [over the] last ten years,” Conoley added. The site is one way the firm’s works with external partners and will be one of the ways it develops modular products. “What I personally get from OI on ingenuityworking.com is lots of live research, every minute,” said Eades.

Conoley, who has been with Psion since mid-2008, said the move to an OI model was well planned. It was “not without its challenges, but in this market, companies have to be braver!” he said. There was “no leap in one jump to OI.” They spent 20 months creating the organization, products, values, and the open community “just to get past start line,” he said. Psion now has a large partner community it works with to develop its products and components.

Asked if that offered too much visibility to competitors, Eades said it was a “mutual approach.” Psion publishes interfaces and makes the core of the product. Partners make devices and then share those online. However, a lot of the collaborative work is kept between Psion and its partners. “The answer is modular products, much more modular than ever before — almost lego like,” said Eades.

As for the Twitter Chat format, I really like it. The gist of the format has been around since Compuserve days but those old bulletin boards lack the immediacy of Twitter. Another advantage of the newer platform is that elements of the chat will live on for a while. It is almost 24 hours after the event as I write this and quotes from the execs are still being retweeted. I would also recommend a tool like TweetDeck that allows you to do stuff like monitor your mentions, the chat — this one was under #psion — and your regular feed simultaneously.

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