Customers as Innovators

  • Thomke S
  • Von Hippel E
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Product R&D at many companies is a major bottleneck. The difficulty is that fully understanding the needs of just a single customer can be an inexact and costly process--to say nothing of the needs of all customers or even groups of them. In the course of studying product innovation across many industries, authors Stefan Thomke and Eric von Hippel have found several companies that have adopted a completely new, seemingly counterintuitive, approach to product R&D. Essentially, these companies have abandoned their efforts to understand exactly what products their customers want; instead, they equip customers with tool kits to design and develop their own products. Doing so can create tremendous value, but capturing that value is hardly a simple or straightforward process. Not only must a company develop the right tool kit, but it must also revamp its business models and management mind-set. When companies relinquish a fundamental task--such as designing a new product--to customers, the two parties must redefine their relationship, and this change can be risky. With custom computer chips, for instance, companies traditionally captured value by both designing and manufacturing innovative products. With customers taking over more of the design, companies must now focus more on providing the best custom manufacturing. In other words, the location where value is created and is captured changes, and companies must reconfigure their business models accordingly. This article offers basic principles and lessons for industries undergoing such transformations.

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  • Stefan Thomke

  • Eric Von Hippel

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