Rethinking Roles in Open Innovation Teams

Sep 7, 2016

Rethinking Roles in Open Innovation Teams

In my role as a teacher in post-graduate Business Process Management I continually work with groups of students who are professionals from different organizations with different organizational cultures. One of the recurring major challenges within organizations that we have tried to resolve is the lack of clear definition of roles in process implementation.

Open innovation can combine internal and external ideas within an organization in order to enable their full integration in new systems, and this applies equally to commercial and non-profit entities. The main objective of this model is to create value for all stakeholders whether internal or external to the organization.

We can say that value creation comes in many forms, including:

  • knowledge transfer,
  • improvement of the quality of suppliers’ activity,
  • the improvement or innovation in the services or products delivered to customers,
  • or the personal development of employees.

Rethinking Roles in Open Innovation TeamsAn example of this value creation is InovGrid, a project created by Portuguese energy company EDP Distribution. Collaboration between several university and business organizations enabled effective knowledge transfer within interdisciplinary environments leading to the empowerment of customers to contribute to increased energy efficiency.

Such collaboration (and it isn’t an easy scenario to conceive) is necessarily a process of combining a number of cross-functional factors to make the successful intersection of ideas, knowledge and technology a reality. It allows the development of a state of dynamic alert, stimulates creative flows, encourages learning that includes learning and unlearning, and provides a broad overview of the desired results.

However, if we want effective collaboration to be a reality, we need to understand management roles in a specific context of bringing together divergent organizational cultures. To make open innovation happen it is necessary to assign certain roles within a group, and understand that good performance of these roles is a key step towards achieving positive results. Only then can organizations embrace open systems and begin to build an Open Innovation Culture through which they can work better and more effectively between internal departments and with other external organizations.

Among the many roles that we can find in these collaborative work environments, there are three that are particularly important:

  1. the facilitator,
  2. the ‘common sense’ builder (and creator of a common language)
  3. the adviser (also responsible for maintaining a dynamic dialogue).

It is important to note that these roles do not represent any form of hierarchy. Also, in an iterative manner, the different roles may rotate within a group in an evolutionary scenario, and depending on organizational structures they can be played by one or more members of the teams dedicated to projects.

A further very important factor for the roles to deliver efficient outcomes is the “buy-in” of the process by senior management. They have to accept that subordinates will take on wider horizontal management roles within open innovation groups than their usual ones within their vertical departmental responsibilities. It boosts the personal development of the subordinates concerned, though some traditionally-minded bosses may find this disturbing through not knowing what future employee expectations it could lead to.

Let us start by seeing to what extent the role of a facilitator is essential.

The facilitator
The facilitator is someone who helps a group of people, often originating from different organizations and thus with historical and different cultures, to understand their common objectives. The facilitator also helps in planning though without being part of the resulting discussion.

The role of a facilitator is only effective when done with knowledge and awareness of the contexts in which any resulting activity will take place. The culture and/or the location of the organization that is going to implement the resulting activity might influence the work of the facilitator.

The facilitator should be able to encourage participation and creativity, taking into account the difficulties inherent in bringing together cross-functional teams from different disciplines. There can be different languages, different knowledge and different values.

The builder
The ‘common sense’ builder is the master of simplicity, removing the complex or ambiguous aspects of information and interactions through ensuring that all members of the project team understand and accept the same meanings of data, terms, labels and phrases.

The guide/adviser
Rethinking Roles in Open Innovation Teams
Project teams or teams involved in open innovation initiatives are very similar to a crew of a sailboat in a competition. Plans are made to complete a race with reference to data sources including the course, tides, winds and possibly depth changes during the timescale of the race; specific roles are assigned among the crew to enable effective teamwork and a dynamic dialogue to maintain consistent progress along the route. In short, everyone has to know where they are trying to get to, by when, and what their contribution is going to be to get there. This is the role of the guide/adviser.

As further useful reading on the management of open innovation practices I recommend Roland Harwood’s article on Seven Tactics For Open Innovation.

The importance of trust
If it is true that without a clear understanding of the roles that each person has to play in open innovation teams we cannot set a good route, it is also true that without mutual trust it is difficult for our mutual aims to come to fruition. But is it individual or organizational trust?

Trust settles when comparing our costs, effort and risk-taking with the benefits of teamwork and of interactions with outside elements, and we see that the outcome is positive.

Trust can begin at an individual level though it quickly extends to a wider organization when the reputation or history of the role players is revealed and recognized.

Finally, open innovation projects that deliver solutions or systems that gain some third-party accreditation, such as ISO Certification, also instill organizational trust in the results.

To close, just remember: open innovation depends on effective communication and shared knowledge, so a collaborative and trusting relationship must be transparent.

What do you think about this, does this echo any of your own open innovation experiences? Please share your thoughts.



About Author

About Author

José António Baldaia

José Baldaia is a Psychologist specializing in Organizational Behavior. He lives and works in Portugal as a consultant in Management and Innovation, mainly for SMEs with special attention to the roles and importance of HR in innovation process, and is also a successful facilitator for team building in interdisciplinary environments and behavior training. He is a researcher in the areas of innovation and tools of thought creativity, design thinking and service design; teaches New Organizational Context and Business Process Implementation – BPM; and has a degree in Psychology from the University of Porto

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