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If open innovation intermediaries’ most important asset is a large crowd of resourceful problem solvers, then keeping these bright individuals around should be a top priority.
Part of that, of course, entails finding interesting and thoughtful challenges for the solvers to participate in. But it also means that intermediaries must do their best to turn the crowd of solvers into an active, engaged community.
Different intermediaries are taking different approaches to this, but few have gone as far as NineSigma to build a community for its users to interact with one another. In June, the company launched an open innovation social media “destination” called NineSights, whose aim is to “catalyze and accelerate innovation across industries and connect solution seekers and providers worldwide.”
NineSigma has been around for more than a decade and has seen its role change from a company that, in its earliest days, helped to transfer information from the solution seekers to the providers (and vice versa) to one that acts as a more active and involved “liaison” between the two parties.
As people became more comfortable interacting online through social media, however, the company realized that it could do more to facilitate “many-to-many” dialogues, said Denys Resnick, vice president of strategic programs at NineSigma.
“We looked at what the next generation of open innovation is going to be, it’s really about having technical communities come together in an environment that they’re comfortable with, that matches their profile, and engage in higher-value activity,” Resnick told Crowdsourcing.org.
At the same time, NineSigma began to see many clients (and non-client companies) launch their own open innovation portals, which may be difficult to find and vary in quality.
“Our solution provider community was telling us, ‘Boy, NineSigma, couldn’t you aggregate all of these [challenges] into one environment? We trust what you tell us, and when you post it as part of your challenge system, we know that it’s real,’” Resnick said.
“So NineSights came from the needs on both sides: for the seeker, how do [they] actually get the high-quality solutions that [they] know NineSigma always brings to [them],” she continued. “And from solution providers saying, ‘Please don’t make us go on a treasure hunt just to be able to bring our ideas forward.’”
NineSights has a number of features and ways for solution seekers and providers to participate within the community. One is Galleries, which allows companies to create “branded sub-spaces within NineSights that just hold the challenges of one specific client or organization,” Resnick explained.
The idea is for companies and organizations to have an innovation portal within NineSights that could function on its own, or in tandem with a client's existing open innovation initiative. Consider, for example, Philips, which has a portal called ‘SimplyInnovate’, but also created a gallery within NineSights in order to reach a broader group of people.
“It’s not at all to compete with [companies’] portals, in fact it’s to drive more eyeballs to them,” Resnick said. “Some of the clients are using the exact same challenges they have on their own site, and we’ll have a link back to the client’s own site. Whether the submission happens on our site or their site, [the clients] don’t really care. It’s a way for them to tap into the target community that they don’t have another way to reach.”
NineSights also posts requests for proposals (RFPs), and allows companies and individuals to post “Needs” they may have. RFPs and Needs differ in that the former are developed by NineSigma itself on behalf of its clients, while the latter are “opportunities for funding and partnerships” that anyone can share with the NineSights community.
Clients can also submit Grand Challenges, which focus on "much broader topics that have a social [goodness] component to them," Resnick said. Earlier today, for example, the Canadian Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation launched a $35 million grand challenge centered around innovative carbon uses.
In addition to these features, both seekers and providers are able to post Technology Offers. This allows companies to showcase intellectual property they hold but may not be using, giving them an opportunity to license it to companies or organizations who may put it to work. And it gives solution providers a space to “create a branded billboard” that shows the sorts of projects they have worked on and what they are capable of, Resnick stated.
While joining NineSights is free, solution seekers must pay to tap into certain aspects of the platform (creating a Featured Gallery, for example). Resnick said the pricing is determined on a case-by-case basis and depends on what features the solution seekers require.
NineSights offers multiple ways for solution providers to interact with one another, as well as for seekers to engage with the community. Members can ask questions about or comment on specific challenges, join expert panels around specific subjects and industries, create discussions about topics they are interested in, or run polls. When it comes to community interaction, NineSights functions very much as a social media platform – profiles, status updates, and all.
The site emphasizes that all information shared should be non-confidential to protect both the solution seekers and providers.
“What we’ve seen is that, first of all, solution providers who have invested their entire life’s work in this IP, they are very protective of it,” Resnick explained. “We want to make sure that they don’t share anything that would put their IP ownership at risk.
“On the other side, the seeker organizations want to make sure they also have a firewall, to protect them from IP that would contaminate [their own research],” she added. “And they want to make sure that when they engage with a solution provider, there is a very specific line [when the conversation becomes confidential], and both parties know when they have crossed it.”
Resnick said feedback from clients has been positive thus far. She mentioned an early example where a client received fewer than 25 solutions to a challenge. (“We were a little concerned because we wanted to see more activity,” she admitted.) But the client company was still “thrilled” because the submissions it received through NineSights were of significantly higher quality than those that came through its own portal.
Currently, NineSights is thinking about (among other things) how to implement gamification features, as well as allowing clients to create private spaces to communicate with solution providers.
Ultimately, the site is exploring uncharted territory in the open innovation field, and Resnick wants to keep the platform fearlessly innovative and experimental – even if not all projects succeed and all gambles pay off.
“I tell my team, ‘I want us to keep pushing until we hit a wall,’” Resnick said with a laugh. “To me, failure is a badge of honor. If we have failed in one thing and succeeded in three, we’ve done a great job.”