Attracting Top Contributors to an Open Innovation Project

“Not all smart people work for you,” begins Henry Chesbrough’s classic 2003 HBR article on the merits of open innovation. Firms must find a way to tap into external knowledge and ideas to innovate. Today, this premise is the basis for crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, open source development, and more. In each case, firms face a challenge: how to attract and motivate the best external contributors.

A recently published paper by researchers at Duke and the London School of economics sheds light on this issue by studying contributions to open source software. It suggests that to attract the most productive contributors, companies may have to give up more control over their project. At the very least, they need to consider the values of the community they’re hoping to attract, and not just offer financial or professional incentives.

In an attempt to determine what motivates open source contributors, the researchers looked at data from SourceForge.net, a site that hosts open source software projects. They measured various factors that might affect a developer’s chances of contributing to a project, like whether contributions were credited publicly, whether the project had a corporate sponsor, and what kind of software licensing the project used.

While they found that different types of projects attract different types of contributors, one consistent finding across types of contributors and projects was the importance of reputation as a motivator for contributing. Projects that more frequently publicly credited contributors attracted more contributions. This finding is consistent with recent research from Harvard on the motivations of Wikipedia contributors, which found evidence that social image is a primary motivator. For open innovation projects, the lesson is clear: make contributions transparent, and design tools that validate top contributors’ status in the group.

Giving credit is easy enough, but one of the paper’s other key findings points to a tradeoff for companies between attracting talented contributors and maintaining control. The authors found that developers who mostly contribute to openly licensed projects, or who contributed anonymously, were far more productive than those who mostly contributed to more commercially oriented projects. They attribute this to the power of intrinsic motivation.

The authors argue that to attract more of these highly productive, intrinsically motivated developers, firms must consider licensing their software projects more openly. (Open source software licenses vary, from those that are very friendly to commercial activity and so “less open,” to those that require all future variations of the code be made freely available, and so are “more open.”)

This lesson applies beyond software, and is ultimately about more than control. Developers in the open source community are often motivated by an ideological preference for openly licensed software. Hence this intrinsically motivated group gravitates to such projects. Firms considering any kind of open innovation — crowdsourcing a new product idea, encouraging app development based on one of its platforms, etc. — must appeal not just to professional or financial rewards. They must tap into the values of the community they’re looking to engage.

That could mean making a project more open, prioritizing a social aim alongside a commercial one, or investing the firm’s time and money into other open projects valued by the community of interest. These commitments might make open innovation more expensive in the short-term, but they may well pay for themselves by bringing more talented contributors to the table.

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