Keys to innovation: Tapping communities of lead users


Today I was interviewed on ABC Radio National’s ByDesign program on how our expectations of beauty are increasing. You can listen to the interview here.

At one point the conversation shifted to how companies could generate the innovation that will meet the soaring expectations of users.

Notably through the work of MIT’s Eric von Hippel, companies have grown to recognize the critical importance of co-creation in innovation, and in particular the role of ‘lead users’. Lead users are typically those who find new applications for products, extend their use, and are the most discerning.

In the interview I was asked how companies can find these lead users to help them innovate.

My response was that by far the best way is to find them in communities. The rise of social media has made it far easier for the most discerning and sophisticated in their fields to discover like-minded people with whom they can share ideas and develop their expertise.

This means that companies, rather than trying to find lead users individually, can find them already clustered with their peers.

Some years ago I consulted to one of the world’s most prominent companies engaged in open innovation, helping them to work out how social networks could be used to support their innovation efforts.

The key issue in tapping communities of lead users is not one of discovery, it is one of engagement. Lead users are usually suspicious of commercial involvement in their conversations.

The only viable way to engage successfully is to begin as a community member, contributing and participating as a peer. This means companies need to have community-minded experts on their staff, who learn by engaging with these peers. From there it is possible to bring them into the innovation process, both formally and informally.

As I pointed out in the interview, while this provides the richest and best insights and stimulus into innovation, relatively few companies are good at tapping communities of lead users.

Today and moving forward, this is a critical capability to drive successful innovation.