User Innovation

By Jim Euchner, RTM Editor-in-Chief

When I was a graduate student, I had a compelling need for sleep. My thesis involved many experiments in sequence, each of which required me to spend about 20 hours doing the analytical chemistry to generate results. My sleep was suffering. To reduce the time needed to complete the experiments, I decided to automate the process. That proved harder than I thought. It required innovation, not just implementation. The automated gas sampling system I developed to meet my own needs went on to be used by future graduate students and was eventually commercialized by an analytical equipment company. And I got my sleep.

I later met Eric von Hippel and realized that I was a user innovator—someone who innovates, not with the expectation of profiting from the invention, but with a desire to benefit from using it. I learned that over 80 percent of the functionally new innovations in the analytical equipment industry were created by users (and later commercialized by firms).

The phenomenon of user innovation has been studied by a growing community of academics, and its prevalence, motivations, and importance are becoming better understood. Surprisingly, most companies have failed to capitalize on it, or even to acknowledge it. This is unfortunate. User innovation has the potential both to enhance innovation practices in corporations and to disrupt business models. Companies that ignore it risk losing competitive advantage.

This special issue of RTM is devoted to user innovation and user innovation communities. It includes an interview with Eric von Hippel, who coined the term “lead user” and has been studying user innovators and open-source and user communities for over 30 years. In the interview, von Hippel discusses the surprising prevalence of user innovation, the forces driving its growth, and how leading companies have learned to collaborate with users to everyone’s benefit.

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