Carnegie Mellon University

Soo-Haeng Cho

April 21, 2020

Deeper Knowledge and Experience Helping Other Customers Lead to More Successful Ideas in Innovation Crowdsourcing Communities

Mara Falk
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Many companies invite their customers to propose new products or services via what are termed innovation crowdsourcing communities. These communities dovetail with customer support crowdsourcing communities, which involve customers offering solutions by pointing each other to a company's products.

A new study investigated whether synergies exist between the two communities such that individuals who provide customer support would be better equipped to provide new ideas. Natural language processing was used to construct individuals' information networks based on the help they provided in a customer support community.

The study found that generalists who offer support to other customers on broad topics are more likely to contribute novel ideas to an innovation crowdsourcing community than are non-generalists. Additionally, the study revealed that generalists who have accumulated deep knowledge in at least one topic domain outperform non-generalists in their ability to generate successful ideas as well as generalists who have accumulated only shallow knowledge.  

The study, by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and University of Washington appears in Information Systems Research.

"This research is an example of the interdisciplinary approach to research we take at Tepper," said Linda Argote, Thomas Lord Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory and Director of the Center of Organizational Learning, Innovation, and Knowledge at CMU's Tepper School of Business, who coauthored the study. "We think that important real-world problems don't fall neatly into one discipline but rather benefit from the perspectives of several disciplines. Elina and Param are experts in information systems and business technologies, whereas my expertise is in organizational behavior and psychology." The project began when Elina Hwang was a Ph.D. student at Tepper. She is now on the faculty of the University of Washington.

Community Interactions Strengthen Information Networks

The researchers define a customer support crowdsourcing community as a community in which customers help each other develop solutions to their current problems with a company's products. An innovation crowdsourcing community, on the other hand, is one in which customers propose new product ideas directly to a company.

Several academic studies have analyzed who adds to these communities most directly, finding that customers tend to prefer products generated by other customers, products generated by women, and products generated by those who have relevant technical expertise. However, this is the first study to address how social interactions in crowdsourcing customer support communities influence the quality of ideas in crowdsourcing innovation communities.

Within crowdsourcing communities, users interact by commenting, voting, or offering helpful advice. Based on research that suggests innovation is the product of having solid information regarding needs and means, the researchers hypothesized that individuals who help other customers within crowdsourcing communities would have access to the needs and means required for generating ideas. Therefore, the researchers evaluated the impact of individuals' information network structure in the customer support community on their product ideation in the innovation community.

Consistent with research on creativity, product ideation was evaluated based on whether an idea was novel, popular, and feasible. They then categorized the individuals based on the pattern of information each would accumulate while interacting with other users in the customer support community: deep generalists, shallow generalists, and non-generalists. Deep generalists helped on a broad range of topics, and accumulated deep knowledge in at least one domain area. Shallow generalists helped other community members on a broad range of topics but did not possess any deep expertise themselves.  Non-generalists helped on a limited range of topics.

Broad Range of Experience Fosters Creativity

The researchers hypothesized that deep generalists would outperform others in generating ideas due to their knowledge of needs and means that is both broad and deep. To empirically test this hypothesis, they evaluated an innovation crowdsourcing community and customer support community hosted by a telecommunication company and analyzed 8,110 new product ideation projects conducted by 2,643 individuals within the community over three years. In this case, the company did not set a time limit or specify a specific problem to solve, but instead opened the opportunity for users to generate ideas for any topic. The community then evaluated the users’ ideas through a voting system.

The results of the evaluation supported the researchers’ hypothesis. The ideas created by generalists were more likely to be deemed novel by the innovation crowdsourcing community compared to those ideas created by non-generalists. Further, individuals who were categorized as deep-generalists were more likely to contribute feasible ideas than either non-generalists or shallow generalists—generalists without deep knowledge in a specific topic area. The results indicate that by helping others in a customer support community, individuals are able to develop and contribute better ideas in an innovation crowdsourcing community.

Argote adds, "Ours is the first study to show that experience acquired in a crowdsourcing customer support community affects ideas proposed in a crowdsourcing innovation community. Thus, we provide evidence of knowledge transfer across the two communities. Our study also contributes to the question of whether it is better to be a generalist or a specialist. We show that when the criterion is developing novel ideas, deep generalists outperform either shallow generalists or non-generalists."


Summarized from an article in Information Systems Research, "Jack of All, Master of Some: Information Network and Innovation in Crowdsourcing Communities," by Hwang, Elina H. (University of Washington) Singh, Param Vir (Carnegie Mellon University) and Argote, Linda (Carnegie Mellon University). Copyright 2019. All rights reserved.