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What tasks are fit for open innovation?


Since the launch of Innocentive back in 2001, the application of open innovation has spread out from its scientific routes to encompass a growing number of fields.  The success of those forays have been somewhat mixed however, so I thought it might be useful to explore in more detail the kind of areas that open innovation is well suited to.

A good place to start is the work of Ivan Dale Steiner.  He distinguished between what he saw the two main types of workplace tasks:

  • Disjunctive tasks
  • Conjunctive tasks

The distinction is a crucial one when it comes to crowdsourcing.  Disjunctive tasks can be commonly regarded as those for which only one member of the group needs to succeed for the group as a whole to succeed.  So many of the challenges posted onto Innocentive for instance could be regarded as disjunctive tasks.

Conjunctive tasks on the other hand require a good contribution from every member of the group for the group to succeed.  So building a bridge for instance is a conjunctive task as every member of the team has to contribute.

So how does this matter for crowdsourcing?  Well, in disjunctive tasks, the diversity of opinion that is so often a strength of open innovation can come to the fore because multiple approaches can be taken to solving the problem, with that one successful idea then benefiting the whole community.

Conjunctive tasks however often aren’t so conducive to open innovation because it requires people working collectively on a task, and this is very hard to achieve, especially when the various participants in the project are so distributed.

Indeed, it could be argued that the principle challenge of any organisation with distributed resources is to convert conjunctive tasks into disjunctive ones.  This is something that the open source movement have done very well by turning complex software development into a collection of modular and disjunctive parts.

It is only when this occurs that the vast diversity of the crowd participating in the project can bring their benefits to the project.  So, if you’re looking to make a success of crowdsourcing innovation, make sure your task is disjunctive.

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