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Is it "Collaboration", or Matchmaking?

A few weeks ago, I was the guest of SAP’s Blogger Relations program at TechEd Las Vegas. One of the announcements that week was the sponsorship of the SAP Innovation & Technology Pavilion within the InnoCentive community.

If you’ve read Wikinomics, Don Tapscott’s highly regarded book about the value of collaboration and crowdsourcing, you’ve heard of InnoCentive. Their corporate literature describes the company as,

A global open innovation marketplace, where individuals… collaborate to deliver breakthrough solutions for organizations driven by research and development. InnoCentive Seekers, who collectively spend billions of dollars on R&D, submit complex problems to the InnoCentive Marketplace, where more than 160,000 engineers, scientists, inventors, business people and research organizations in more than 175 countries are invited to solve them. Solvers who deliver the most innovative solutions receive financial awards.

The joint press release referred to the “co-innovation” facilitated by InnoCentive:

Forum for Global Community Co-Innovation… The addition of InnoCentive to the SAP ecosystem further fosters co-innovation

But here’s the thing: much as I applaud the inherent sense behind the InnoCentive concept (and there have been many, many success stories that would not have been possible without their unique approach to R&D resourcing), it’s not really co-innovation (it should be more accurately described as open innovation), and it is certainly not collaboration.

Here’s how InnoCentive works: participants in the community who have a problem post it and value the solution at $5,000 and up (they’re the “Seekers”). If you have a solution (or think you do) you submit it (you’re a “Solver”). The Seeker company reviews all submitted solutions and determines which one best meets their need. The winner signs over their IP and gets the money.

However, this isn’t collaboration. It’s match-making in the “I have the rollerskates and you have the key” sense of the term.

Wikipedia defines collaboration as a circumstance,

Where two or more people or organizations work together toward an intersection of common goals… by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus. Collaboration does not require leadership… teams that work collaboratively can obtain greater resources, recognition and reward when facing competition for finite resources.

In the case of InnoCentive – the loss is that the winner takes all, therefore there is no motivation to true collaboration (i.e. multiple parties coming together to find answers they could not reach singly). While many more solutions are undoubtedly found as firms tap the resources offered by tens of thousands of InnoCentive Solvers, it stops short of enabling true collaboration. If I have half an answer and someone else has the other half, the inherent self-interest that is the guiding principle behind the community will keep us apart (the platform does not provide any collaborative space around projects – to get challenge details, you must sign up for access to a rather lonely “Project Room”, in which you are the only occupant).

This is, ironically, in sharp contrast to the robust collaboration that takes place among members of the SAP Developer Network, given that the partnership with InnoCentive is being positioned as an enhancement to SDN. On SDN questions are posed and dozens, if not hundreds, of community members respond in an effort to come up with the best solution. The incentives are participation-based reputation points, rather than the Big Cash Prize! for The Winning Answer! InnoCentive model. On SDN Seekers are offered the true, deep benefits of crowdsourcing – hundreds of qualified Solvers working together to iterate the best possible answer to their problems, for reasons that go beyond mere financial reward.

Update [Full disclosure: SAP is a client]