Learners as Co-Innovators

» Posted by Jeanne Meister  » Posted on 12.03.07

Published November 2006

One of the most powerful concepts to be uncovered at the World Economic Forum this year was open-source innovation. Open-source innovation ensures the most useful ideas find their way into an organization’s strategy and operational plan. Such openness allows for a less top-down approach to innovation so that new ideas and input come from a wide range of constituents. After all, no one constituent has a monopoly on good ideas, so developing an open-source approach to innovation gives rise to the creation of an innovation engine in which practitioners play a leading role in creating the product.

There are many examples from the consumer world of open-source innovation in action. In the past year, many companies have reached out to their consumers to encourage them to share their experiences in using their products. These experiences have provided input to new advertising and promotional campaigns.

For instance, Purina is seeking “secrets from dog owners in training their dog,” and this is being used to promote a new product, Second Nature. In just two weeks, www.doglitter.com generated more than 2 million e-mails from dog owners fully engaged in sharing problems, secrets and tips in training their pup.

Procter & Gamble went a step further in its “Are You Strong Enough To Share Your Secret?” campaign. The company asked women to share their innermost secrets on www.shareyoursecret.com. Several were later selected to be shown in 30-second TV commercials. The response: overwhelming buzz in the marketplace.

Open-source innovation is moving beyond the consumer world to the high technology arena with Cisco. Recently, Cisco engineers moved from simply demonstrating their solutions in customer meetings to creating a more shared-innovation approach, allowing customers to adapt the design, configuration and optimization models for their own use. This is a step beyond customization — it is really an attempt to alter the innovation ecosystem by allowing external viewpoints to create the ultimate product or solution.

Fast-forward to the world of corporate learning and ask yourself: “Am I involving my learners so they can generate input that I, in turn, use in my courses?” I can see many new ways to involve learners to a much greater degree than we normally do.


  • Chats between learners, as well as between learners and the instructor, can be reformatted and categorized by type such as best practices, shared experiences or simply used to refresh the questions and answers section of a program.
  • Dialogue in team projects can be an enormously rich source of input. After all, the best learning occurs when new information finds “mental hooks” to enter long-term memory. Allow learners the opportunity to share failures as well as successes. Catalogue this input and incorporate it into the overall program.
  • Conversations between learners and their “coach” or “mentor” back on the job also can be a good source of best practices. Too often “learning” stops after the presentation of the “action learning team” to the senior executive team. But you can make it a priority to capture the learning dialogue between learners and their mentors and integrate it into the next version of the program.
  • So, if creating more space for learner-generated input is your goal for 2007, here are three questions you should ask yourself and your staff:

    1. Does your staff have editorial experience, so learner input can be captured, reformatted and incorporated back into your programs?

    2. Are you encouraging learners to share experiences openly and letting them know their input is valued?

    3. Are senior executives in your organization modeling the importance of sharing best practices and using these practices to improve/enhance the products and services of your company?

    Creating learners as co-innovators ultimately will shift the focus from learners who passively consume knowledge to learners who are actively involved in contributing best practices and shared experiences.

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