Action Research and Open Innovation: A Synergy?

Action Research and Open Innovation: A Synergy?

Elisabeth Fruijtier (University of Oslo, Norway)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2642-1.ch002


In today's world, ‘global' problems increasingly require global solutions. In order to realize these solutions, innovation processes are ‘opening up'. Both of these developments adds a level of complexity to the Action Research process that is traditionally, and perhaps inherently local in nature. However, it also offers opportunities. This chapter explores the case of an Action Research innovation that reached a global scale beyond the initial Action Research process that started it, with the help of Open Innovation strategies. From this case we learn that Open Innovation has a significant potential for sustaining Action Research ‘action' beyond its initiation and make them transferable across contexts. At the same time, such ‘open' innovations can grow very complex, and therefore so can ‘open' Action Research solutions – especially when they concern (free and open source) information systems. The concept of ‘Action Research Systems' is introduced as one way in which Action Research can help ground Open Innovation processes in dealing with this complexity.
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Especially in the high-tech industry, there is a growing awareness that traditional organizations should be open to ‘outside’ innovation (Saint-Paul 2003) which furthermore stimulates external exploitation of innovation (Chesbrough & Crowther 2006). In this networking imperative (Enkel, Gassmann & Chesbrough 2009) blurring boundaries between organizations and between them and consumers has led to new ways of innovating, also discussed by Chesbrough (2003) as ‘Open Innovation’.

Open Source software development is generally perceived to be an example of Open Innovation in the IS field that has led to highly ‘fluid’ development processes. Unlike physical or biological matter, software innovation is made up of ‘code’; a language that can be accessed from computers from all over the world and is increasingly spoken beyond the traditional information technology domain. Users can access the source code, they can alter it and create their own local alternatives of the product or enter a dialogue about the ‘source code’ itself and therefore the way the product should function/exist. Building on a rich ‘hacker ethics’ tradition characterized by values of openness, sharing and collaboration, OSS is argued direct power transferred to corporations as a result of globalisation, back to the people (Bejoy 2010).

The previous example illustrates how consumers as part of more ‘open’ forms of innovating and co-creating are perceived to be “armed with new connective tools” and “want to interact and co-create value, not just with one firm but with whole communities of professionals, service providers and other consumers” (Prahalad & Ramaswamy 2004 p.14). There is an increasing understanding that design problems faced nowadays require stakeholders from different disciplines and need to include problem-owners (Fischer 2013). To action researchers of information systems (IS), who have specialized in including problem owners in design processes, this paradigm shift is exciting and full of opportunities. However, it is also one in which new challenges present themselves.

Action research (AR) can be generally captured as the collaborative production of scientifically and socially relevant knowledge through a participatory process. In the information systems domain, Action Research cycles often produce socio-technical constructs that combine technology and social intervention in order to address a ‘real world problem’ and produce scientific knowledge. At the same time, these (scientific process and) practical hands-on interventions also leave behind tangible design. We have imagined Action Research can take place in multiple cycles that spiral in a linear direction, with the advantage that the negotiation of participatory designs remains of a relatively simple nature, and the disadvantage that they are difficult to scale. But have we considered the scenario, partly made possible by open innovating techniques, whereby they fractal out across multiple dimensions?

As pointed out by Waddell et al. (2015), action researchers today like any other change agent are more likely to find their projects entangled in complex global constellations, even when they appear to be – or intend to remain - local. IS increasingly evolve from things into structures; from ‘finished’ products into customisable platforms. In these environments, platform-based services acquire characteristics of infrastructure1, while both new and existing infrastructures are built or reorganized on the logic of platforms2 (Plantin et al, 2016).

This chapter is written with the intention to prepare Action Research for such situations by picturing what this situation and its challenges look like in a particular case and domain which is especially likely to produce ‘high maintenance’ outputs. Though an Action Research process itself may discontinue to be part of the ‘life’ of its solution sooner or later, we also imagine how action researchers may still continue to play a valuable role in different chapters of the solutions ‘story’. The potential of Open Innovation is explored in an attempt to address the sustainability of such AR actions.

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