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Participatory innovation is still a new experience to many practitioners. How do you make sure you are actually listening to users? And how do you organize your company internally to properly involve external stakeholders. Participatory innovation is the new discipline of involving users of products and services, and understanding what they are really saying, even if some of those signals are not what you want to hear or see.

Participatory innovation focuses on involving users as co-designers in processes of innovation. It draws on knowledge in a wide range of disciplines, such as participatory design, design anthropology, conversational analysis, innovation management, and organization theory. While it also relates to the theories and practices of user-driven innovation – as exemplified by the work of Eric von Hippel – and open innovation – as proposed by Henry Chesbrough – it distinguishes itself by its focus on innovation as being socially shaped.

External stakeholders such as users can improve processes of innovation within organizations. This is widely accepted, to a degree where the task of organizing such activities is seen as straightforward and apparently simple. We believe that this is not the case. In reality, people in organizations strive to keep “business as usual”. Involving stakeholders from outside can threaten the identity what has been socially negotiated in the politics of everyday life in the organization. This creates challenges for managers or consultants with intentions of involving users and other external stakeholders beyond ”ticking the box”. When organizing such activities, the main task might not be how to do the actual activities with the external stakeholders, the really difficult part seems to be how to gain acceptance within the organization to do so.

Involving stakeholders from outside can threaten the identity what has been socially negotiated in the politics of everyday life in the organization.

The Sønderborg Participatory Innovation Research Centre (SPIRE) is dedicated to research about users and their way of engaging in the product or service, and research into the processes of involving users in innovation processes in organizations. SPIRE helps identify ways for industry and the public sector to expand innovation through the participation of users, employees, and suppliers.

This article reports on the outcome of a particular part of SPIRE’s research agenda in general and of the recent Participatory Innovation Conference (PINC) in particular. One theme at this conference was how to organize participatory innovation and bring external voices into the organization, and to understand the impacts and reactions when one does so. The article also explores some brief insights for practitioners who want to organize participatory activities.

Participatory innovation

Influential participation in innovation is not just “user-driven” or “open” in the sense that we have come to understand these terms. Participative activity is generally not structured by organizations’ wants or needs. Yet when we think of innovation involving the end user or customer, we think of it within the boundaries set by organizations, which often structure a limited dialogue with the customer or user-base, thus limiting the potential of user-driven and open innovation.

Is it possible to hold this tendency at bay and learn more about customers through a participative methodology, one that is both powerfully adapted to listening to what users really say and observationally powerful enough to understand what they mean? And how would one organize such activity?

The answer is that we actually understand very little about the processes of user involvement in organizations. We tend to congratulate ourselves when we elicit views and ideas through competitions, focus groups or ideas platforms when, obviously, in reality people communicate through stories. People do not necessarily feel comfortable dealing with organizations through the mechanisms that these same organizations want to use for that communication, and they do not, as a rule, get a chance to engage through their own preferred methods of interaction.

Different perspectives on organizing participatory innovation

How do the processes of interaction between the involved stakeholders take place in enabling and also constraining innovative processes? And more generally, what are the organizational attributes or impediments of organizing for innovation when crossing organizational boundaries?

In order to go beyond what is taken for granted in different research traditions, we need to reflect on the social interactions between people, and also how such processes can (or cannot) be managed. Practitioners have expressed the occasional fear that users may offer too radical solutions and that users become too involved. This leads to a strong need for control, which might however prohibit user involvement. The need for control is a reaction to a sense of uncertainty. How to deal with that is a huge theme in most organizations, and usually the discussion is whether we should fight against the uncertainty or try to embrace it.

Practitioners have expressed the occasional fear that users may offer too radical solutions and that users become too involved.

Participatory innovation brings together different and sometimes conflicting perspectives and based on the different backgrounds it has the intention to go beyond what is taken for granted in the different research traditions.

As such, in the spirit of such participative methodology, we organized at the PINC conference a conversation between researchers from each of our disciplines. This conversation involved two keynote speakers, namely Christian Lüthje, chair of the Institute of Marketing and Innovation at Hamburg University of Technology, who is researching innovation processes from a realist perspective, and Chris Mowles, chair of the Complexity and Management Centre at Hertfordshire University, who is researching human interaction from a pragmatic perspective focusing on human interaction.

The participants in this conversation and other dialogues at PINC had strong experiences in organizing innovation with the involvement of users and other relevant stakeholders.

Two narratives of organizing

In our dialogue, Chris Mowles introduced the idea of understanding processes of change in the light of two narratives.

The first narrative expresses the view that such innovation activities can be designed and are basically organized accordingly. In this tradition, it is expected that the manager and/or the consultant can organize user-engagement in such a way that the organization actually succeeds in the intended and planned initiative. Chris mentioned that much anxiety arises when such plans do not come out as expected.

The other narrative expresses the view that such activities will not happen in the way one or a few individuals have planned. Many people will interfere from their own perspective, and no-one can plan upfront what emerges from the different influences on these activities. The process is a series of ongoing negotiation, power is in play, as processes of inclusion and exclusion take place in which people find their role and identity.

From these ever-ongoing processes, innovation and stability emerge. What happens cannot just be considered as “good”—an example of an innovation with negative consequences is the “creative” banking that induced the financial crisis.

Such an emergent perspective does not lead to clear procedures that can be followed to obtain success. But it reveals the importance of following the outcomes of these negotiated intentions and of the need for a manager or consultant to keep participating in the ongoing improvised conversation, which cannot be planned upfront.

While Christian Lüthje’s example can be considered a managerial challenge – generally embedded within the first narrative, as mentioned above – innovation management needs to engage in the second narrative, and focus on and engage themselves in the daily processes of interaction to better understand how users and user communities can be sources of innovation.

Shadow themes

In all processes of human interaction there will be themes that are perceived as illegitimate towards a main discourse. We believe that such themes very often set the conditions for organizing activities of participatory innovation. Such themes tend to be excluded from more structured user participation or are excluded because they are seen to disrupt the organization’s preferred dialogue.

This creates serious problems, because there are often important insights in these shadow themes. In the methods used in participatory innovation, it is important to allow people to communicate more freely. It is important to try to organize the interaction in a way that enables conversation about themes that are usually discussed only very informally (off the record, at home, in a dialogue at the coffee machine, or even in the restroom) to happen in semi-formalized and semi-structured activities.

Consequences for organizing innovation

There can be different intentions of stakeholders within the organization that might hamper or facilitate participatory innovation. Moreover, cross-functional organizational relations may also be important in how companies support the involvement of users and other stakeholders. For example, different functional areas, such as R&D, manufacturing and marketing, may all have different relationships with external stakeholders and may also differ in their capacity to absorb relevant knowledge from the outside. Cross-functional cooperation and intra-firm knowledge transfer are thus essential to give attention to the micro-level activities of organizing processes of innovation. On that level, there also needs to be an effort to participate in the ongoing internal negotiations, and also try to find ways to engage in the more informal themes, thereby contributing to what we call the quality of the ongoing conversation.

As a conclusion we have to accept that processes of innovation are messy, full of different intentions and conflict, where all participants do their best to stay in control. However, it might be the case that novelty is emerging exactly when people are challenging each other. Organizing such activities obviously goes beyond designing activities, as the main part will be to enable participation in the ongoing formal and informal conversations and try to keep the conversation going and also going beyond the safe patterns.


This article draws on the outcomes of the Participatory Innovation Conference (PINC), held January 13-15, 2011 at the University of Southern Denmark in Sønderborg, Denmark. In particular, the presentations, discussions and keynotes related to the track on Organizing Participatory Innovation (chaired by the authors of this article) have been instrumental in our (current) understanding. Go here for more information about PINC 2011 and for more information about SPIRE.

By: Henry Larsen and Marcel Bogers

About the authors:

Henry Larsen is a professor in Participatory Innovation at the University of Southern Denmark, Sønderborg. He has a background as consultant using participative methods, and is informed by the thinking in Complex Responsive Processes of Relating. His research focuses on the uptake of user knowledge, that is, how can we understand the processes of negotiation within the companies when the perspectives of other stakeholders are involved. Email: [email protected].



Marcel Bogers is a post-doc in Innovation Management at the University of Southern Denmark, Sønderborg. He obtained his Ph.D. in Management of Technology from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology). Before doing his PhD, he studied at Eindhoven University of Technology, University of California at Berkeley, and Chalmers University of Technology. His research focuses on the management and organization of innovation, openness in innovation processes and systems, and the role of users in innovation. Email: [email protected]