Harvard Business School’s disruptive innovation guru Clayton Christensen uses crowdsourcing to accelerate the evolution of his latest theory on corporate investment decisions.

File photo by Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Nation & World

Meeting of the minds

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New HBS crowdsourcing effort disrupts scholarship

They weren’t quite Willy Wonka’s golden tickets, but when some Harvard Business School (HBS) alumni opened their mailboxes last fall, they found invitations to participate in a new research project with Professor Clayton Christensen, a top management theorist and influential thinker who coined the term “disruptive innovation.” Little did the recipients know that they might end up blazing a bold, new path to the future of academic scholarship.

Looking to use the convening power of HBS to engage some of the more than 4,000 graduates of his course “Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise,” Christensen put together a project that would build on his new theory about the flawed way that companies make investment decisions, an idea he first explored in a 2012 piece in The New York Times. He also wanted to see if crowdsourcing could accelerate the development and refinement of academic theory, said Derek van Bever, a senior lecturer of business administration who co-teaches the course with Christensen, the Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at HBS.

At the same time, the Digital Initiative, one of seven new cross-disciplinary efforts across HBS that reconsiders and aids innovation and disruption in business, wanted to test the local utility of crowdsourcing, a tool now used by everyone from Harvard and NASA to General Electric to solve mostly scientific research and design problems in competitive forums.

“What we know about innovation is that innovation doesn’t come primarily from inside a particular domain. It comes from people who cross domains and who come from the edge, because they see things differently,” said Colin Maclay, director of the Digital Initiative, of using motivated and informed non-experts to take on a grand challenge.

Initially, it wasn’t clear to anyone whether crowdsourcing could yield useful results in an “edge” research context.

“We knew that we could carry on a good conversation with them. We just didn’t know how interested they would be and how much they would be able to contribute,” said van Bever. “And on both of those scores, we were very pleasantly surprised.”

The experiment was a huge success on all fronts. “We did this as a pilot, and part of our intention in piloting this was to demonstrate the power of this approach for other faculty at HBS and beyond. And we really believe that, going forward, taking advantage of this capability is not only possible, it’s really revolutionary in terms of the speed with which we’re able to work … But also with an alumni base as rich in experience and diversity of perspectives as ours is, you’d be crazy not to tap that if you could,” he said.

“Clay has said very recently that he never wants to go back to the old method.”

The Digital Initiative is busy assembling a slate of new crowdsourcing challenges for the coming academic year. One will examine how to improve the quality of health care, or reduce its cost, on a large scale, and will involve alumni from HBS and Harvard Medical School, and likely others.

“The health care challenge will be the first of a series of challenges designed to leverage the greater Harvard community to collaboratively impact our most-pressing social issues,” said Matt Tucker, community engagement manager for the Digital Initiative and leader of the Open Forum platform.

Using OpenIDEO, a collaborative online platform founded by HBS alumnus Tom Hulme, about 500 of the 1,700 alumni who signed up actively participated in the project, which took place between November and April. First, they helped diagnose some of the issues Christensen and van Bever raised, and then they offered their perspectives in an open format. Later, they proffered ideas and solutions to those problems before group members critiqued sections of the draft article before it was submitted to the publisher.

Taking an open approach was deliberate, favoring “not putting ideas just into a suggestion box where they would be … only viewable to the people who review those ideas, but putting them out in the open, so that, one, everyone can see them, and two, people can comment on them, elaborate on them further, and help to develop them,” said Maclay, “to take what might be a kernel of an idea into something that’s much more powerful.”

The resulting piece, “The Capitalist’s Dilemma,” published in the June issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR), is the first formally crowdsourced article in HBR’s history. In it, Christensen and van Bever consider whether slow economic growth in the United States is triggered by corporate reluctance to invest in long-range innovations. Finding that it is, the research concludes that investors and executives rely on faulty metrics and notions about capital as a scarcity best squirreled away, a misguided view that clouds their ability to assess accurately potential job- and market-creating investments.

Van Bever says crowdsourcing offers a vital benefit for faculty, subverting the often-glacial pace of publishing academic research. The publishing process involves submitting a draft article to a publisher, which then gives copies to reviewers it selects, and who are unknown to the author. Those reviewers send their comments back to the publisher, which forwards them to the author for consideration and revisions. All those handoffs can add years to the publishing process and leave research lagging behind the real-world speed of business.

“It not only compressed the cycle time in a really powerful way, but it also gave us a great deal of confidence that what we had put forth was in fact going to be of practical use to the readers of HBR,” he said.

Crowdsourcing also revealed some surprising insights about M.B.A. graduates and even some possible tweaks for the M.B.A. curriculum around the way students think about finance and strategy. “We learned a lot from the alumni about how turned off they are to the idea of joining a large corporation and then kind of biding their time in lockstep as they progress through the ranks,” said van Bever. “I think that’s a real wake-up call to a number of large companies. If they’re worried about how they’re faring in the war for talent, that kind of message should be one they should be pay attention to.”