This is an excerpt from one of my latest articles that was published through Business Strategy and the Environment.
Big businesses are breaking down traditional silos among their internal departments to improve knowledge flows within their organizations and/or when they welcome external ideas and competences from external organizations (Aakhus & Bzdak, 2015; Chesbrough, 2003; Chesbrough & Bogers, 2014). Open innovation is related to the degree of trust and openness with a variety of stakeholders (Chesbrough, 2020; Leonidou et al., 2020; Zhu et al., 2019). Debately, this concept clearly differentiates itself from closed innovation approaches that are associated with traditional, secretive business models that would primarily rely on the firms’ internal competences and resources. In the latter case, the companies would withhold knowledge about their generation of novel ideas, including incremental and radical innovations within their research and development (R&D) department. They would be wary of leaking information to external parties. This is in stark contract with open innovation.
Open innovation is rooted in the belief that the dissemination of knowledge and collaboration with stakeholders would lead to win-win outcomes for all parties. Chesbrough (2003) argued that companies can maximize the potential of their disruptive innovations if they work in tandem with internal as well as with external stakeholders (rather than on their own) in order to improve products and service delivery. His open innovation model suggests that corporations ought to benefit from diverse pools of knowledge that are distributed among companies, customers, suppliers, universities, research center industry consortia, and startup firms.
Chesbrough (2020) distinguished between different types of insider information that could or could not be leaked to interested parties. He cautioned that sensitive information (he referred to as the “Crown Jewels”) ought to be protected and can never be revealed to external stakeholders. Nevertheless, he argued that an organization can selectively share specific communications with a “Middle Group” comprising key customers, suppliers, and/or partners in order to forge closer relationships with them. The companies’ internal R&D departments can avail themselves from their consumers’ insights as well as from external competences, capabilities, and resources, to cocreate value to their business and to society at large.
Chesbrough (2020) went on to suggest that a company should open-up their “long tail of intellectual property to everyone.” He contended that organizations may do so to save on their patent renewal fees. During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many businesses joined forces and adopted such an intercompany open innovation approach to mass produce medical equipment. For instance, Ford Motor Co. sent its teams of engineers to consult with counterparts at 3M and General Electric to produce respirators, ventilators, and new 3-D-printed face shields, for the benefit of healthcare employees and COVID-19 patients (Washington Post, 2020).
Corporations are increasingly collaborating with experts hailing from diverse industry sectors to innovate themselves and to search for new sources of competitive advantage (Porter & Kramer, 2011; Roszkowska-Menkes, 2018). They may usually resort to open innovation approaches when they engage with talented individuals who work on a freelance basis or for other organizations, to benefit from their support. There is scope for companies to forge fruitful relationships with external stakeholders, who may be specialized in specific fields, to help them identify trends, penetrate into new markets, to develop new products, or to diversify their business model, to establish new revenue streams for their firm (Camilleri & Bresciani, 2022; Centobelli, Cerchione, Chiaroni, et al., 2020; Su et al., 2022). These stakeholders can add value to host organizations in their planning, organization, and implementation of social and environmentally sustainable innovations (Camilleri, 2019a; Sajjad et al., 2020).
Open innovation holds great potential to create shared value opportunities for business and society (Aakhus & Bzdak, 2015; Alberti & Varon Garrido, 2017; Roszkowska-Menkes, 2018). This argumentation is closely related to the strategic approach to corporate social responsibility (CSR) and to the discourse about corporate sustainability (Camilleri, 2022a; Eweje, 2020). Previous literature confirmed that open innovation processes can have a significant effect on the companies’ triple bottom line in terms of their economic performance as well as on their social and environmental credentials (Gong et al., 2020; Grunwald et al., 2021; Mendes et al., 2021; Testa et al., 2018).
The businesses’ ongoing engagement with their valued employees may result in a boost in their intrinsic motivations, morale, job satisfaction, and low turnover levels and could increase their productivity levels (Camilleri, 2021; Chang, 2020; Kumar & Srivastava, 2020; Schmidt-Keilich & Schrader, 2019). Their collaboration with external (expert) stakeholders may lead to positive outcomes including to knowledge acquisition, operational efficiencies, cost savings, and to creating new revenue streams from the development of innovative projects, among others (Ghodbane, 2019; Huizingh, 2011). Open innovation agreements are clearly evidenced when businesses forge strong relationships with internal and external stakeholders to help them plan, develop, promote, and distribute products (Bresciani, 2017; Camilleri, 2019b; Chesbrough & Bogers, 2014; Greco et al., 2022; Loučanová et al., 2022; Troise et al., 2021). They may do so to be in a better position to align corporate objectives (including to increase their bottom lines) with their social and environmental performance (Alberti & Varon Garrido, 2017; Herrera & de las Heras-Rosas, 2020; Mendes et al., 2021).
This paper provides a clear definition of the most popular paradigms relating to the intersection of open innovation approaches and corporate sustainability, as reported in Table 1.
Table 1. A list of the most popular paradigms relating to the intersection of open innovation approaches and corporate sustainability
“The following section synthesizes the content that was reported in past contributions. The researchers deliberate about open innovation opportunities and challenges for host organizations as well as for their collaborators”.
Open innovation opportunities
In the main, many commentators noted that open innovation approaches have brought positive outcomes for host organizations and their collaborators. The research questions of the extracted contributions (that are reported in Table 2) indicated that in many cases, companies are striving in their endeavors to build productive relationships with different stakeholders (Mtapuri et al., 2022; Peña-Miranda et al., 2022; Shaikh & Randhawa, 2022), to create value to their businesses as well as to society (Döll et al., 2022; Ghodbane, 2019; Roszkowska-Menkes, 2018). Very often, they confirmed that open innovation practitioners are promoting organizational governance (Aakhus & Bzdak, 2015; Sánchez-Teba et al., 2021), fair labor practices (Chang, 2020; Herrera & de las Heras-Rosas, 2020; Kumar & Srivastava, 2020; Schmidt-Keilich & Schrader, 2019), environmentally responsible investments (Aakhus & Bzdak, 2015; Cigir, 2018; Mendes et al., 2021; van Lieshout et al., 2021; Yang & Roh, 2019), and consumer-related issues (Greco et al., 2022; Loučanová et al., 2022; Wu & Zhu, 2021; Yang & Roh, 2019), among other laudable behaviors.
Many researchers raised awareness on the corporate sustainability paradigm (van Marrewijk, 2003) as they reported about the businesses’ value creating activities that are synonymous with the triple bottom line discourse, in terms of their organizations’ social, environment, and economic performance (Chang, 2020; Döll et al., 2022; Su et al., 2022; van Lieshout et al., 2021; Yang & Roh, 2019).
Other authors identified strategic CSR (Fontana, 2017; Porter & Kramer, 2006) practices and discussed about shared value perspectives (Abdulkader et al., 2020; Porter & Kramer, 2011) that are intended to improve corporate financial performance while enhancing their social and environmental responsibility credentials among stakeholders (Ghodbane, 2019; Roszkowska-Menkes, 2018; Sánchez-Teba et al., 2021).
Mendes et al. (2021) argued that strategic CSR was evidenced through collaborative approaches involving employees and external stakeholders. They maintained that there is scope for businesses to reconceive their communication designs with a wide array of stakeholders. Similarly, Aakhus and Bzdak (2015) contended that stakeholder engagement and open innovation processes led to improved decision making, particularly when host organizations consider investing in resources and infrastructures to be in a better position to address the social, cultural, and environmental concerns.
Firms could implement open innovation approaches to benefit from outsiders’ capabilities and competences (of other organizations, including funders, partners, and beneficiaries, among others) (Alberti & Varon Garrido, 2017). They may benefit from the external stakeholders’ support to diversify their business and/or to develop innovative products and services. Their involvement could help them augment their financial performance in terms of their margins and return on assets (Ben Hassen & Talbi, 2022).
Ongoing investments in open and technological innovations in terms of process and product development can result in virtuous circles and positive multiplier effects for the businesses as well as to society. Practitioners can forge cooperative agreements with social entrepreneurs, for-profit organizations, or with non-profit entities. Many companies are increasingly recruiting consultants who are specialized in sustainable innovations. Alternatively, they engage corporate reporting experts to help them improve their ESG credentials with stakeholders (Holmes & Smart, 2009).
Such open innovation approaches are intrinsically related to key theoretical underpinnings related to CSR including the stakeholder theory, institutional theory, signaling theory, and to the legitimacy theory, among others (Authors; Freudenreich et al., 2020). Firms have a responsibility to bear toward societies where they operate their business (in addition to their economic responsibility to increase profits). Their collaborative stance with knowledgeable professionals may provide an essential impetus for them to improve their corporate reputation and image with customers and prospects.
The open innovation paradigm suggests that it is in the businesses’ interest to engage with stakeholders through outside-in (to benefit from external knowledge and expertise), inside-out (to avail themselves of their extant competences and capabilities), and coupled (cocreation) processes with internal and external stakeholders (Enkel et al., 2009; Roszkowska-Menkes, 2018). Its theorists claim that outside-in processes are intended to enhance the company’s knowledge as they source external information from marketplace stakeholders including suppliers, intermediaries, customers, and even competitors, among others.
Many researchers emphasize that there are a number of benefits resulting from coopetition among cooperative competitors. Their inside-out collaborative processes stimulate innovations, lead to improvements in extant technologies, and provide complementary resources, resulting in new markets and products. Competing businesses can exchange their ideas and innovations with trustworthy stakeholders, outside of their organizations’ boundaries in order to improve their socio-emotional wealth (Herrera & de las Heras-Rosas, 2020). The proponents of open innovation advocate that businesses ought to foster an organizational culture that promotes knowledge transfer, ongoing innovations, and internationalization strategies.
Michelino et al. (2019) held that organizations ought to engage in ambidextrous approaches. These authors commended that practitioners should distinguish between exploratory and traditional units of their business model. They posited that it would be better for them if they segregated the former from the latter ones, especially if they want to develop new processes, products, and technologies in mature markets. The organizations’ exploratory units could be in a better position to flexibly respond to ongoing changes in their marketing environment.
Other researchers noted that it would be better if the businesses’ R&D activities are attuned with the practitioners’ expertise and/or with their stakeholders who are involved in their open innovation knowledge sharing strategies (Talab et al., 2018). Companies can generate new sources of revenue streams, even in areas that are associated with social issues and/or with green economies, if they reach new customers in different markets (Centobelli, Cerchione, & Esposito, 2020; Chang, 2020; Su et al., 2022; Yang & Roh, 2019). They may partner with other organizations to commercialize their (incremental or radical) innovations through licensing fees, franchises, joint ventures, mergers and acquisitions, spinoffs, and so forth.
Many commentators made reference to coupled processes involving a combination of outside-in and inside-out open innovation processes (Roszkowska-Menkes, 2018). The businesses’ transversal alliances involving horizontal and vertical collaborative approaches with external stakeholders can help them co-create ideas to foster innovations (Greco et al., 2022; Rupo et al., 2018). Several open innovation theorists are increasingly raising awareness on how collaborative relationships with stakeholders including consumers, lead users, organizations who may or may not be related to the company per se, universities as well as research institutions, among others, are supporting various businesses in their R&D stages and/or in the design of products (Khan et al., 2022; Naruetharadhol et al., 2022). Very often, their research confirmed that such cocreation processes are utilized in different contexts, for the manufacturing of a wide range of technologies.
The findings from this review reported that, for the time being, just a few researchers are integrating open innovation’s cocreation approaches with corporate sustainability outcomes. A number of contributing authors insisted that there are many advantages for socially and environmentally responsible companies to embrace open innovation approaches (Carayannis et al., 2021; Cigir, 2018; Mendes et al., 2021; Yang & Roh, 2019). In many cases, they argued that the practitioners’ intentions are to broaden their search activities and to avail themselves from talented employees and external experts in exchange for enhanced social legitimacy, thereby availing themselves of innovation capital for future enterprising activities (Greco et al., 2022; Holmes & Smart, 2009).
Hence, businesses may benefit from the competences and capabilities of individual consultants and organizations (from outside their company) to tap into the power of co-creation, to source ideas for social and green innovations (van Lieshout et al., 2021). These alliances are meant to support laudable causes, address the deficits in society, and/or to minimize the businesses’ impact on the natural environment (Altuna et al., 2015; Khan et al., 2022). For-profit organizations can resort to open innovation approaches to avail themselves of resources and infrastructures that are not currently available within their firm. This way they can reduce their costs, risks, and timescales when diversifying into sustainable business ventures, including those related to social entrepreneurship projects (Peredo & McLean, 2006; Shapovalov et al., 2019). They may do so to leverage their business, to gain a competitive advantage over their rivals.
Open innovation challenges
Open innovations could expose the businesses to significant risks and uncertainties associated with enmeshed, permeable relationships with potential collaborators (Gomes et al., 2021; Madanaguli et al., 2023). Various authors contended that practitioners should create an organizational culture that is conducive to open innovation (Herrera & de las Heras-Rosas, 2020; Mohelska & Sokolova, 2017). Generally, they argued that host organizations should communicate and liaise with employees as well as with external partners, during the generation of ideas and in different stages of their R&D projects. Some researchers noted that open innovation practitioners tend to rely on their external stakeholders’ valuable support to diversify their business models, products, or services (Chalvatzis et al., 2019; Park & Tangpong, 2021; Su et al., 2022).
A number of academic commentators argued that practitioners have to set clear, specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely goals to them before they even start working on a project together (Alberti & Varon Garrido, 2017). In many cases, they maintained that host organizations are expected to foster a strong relationship with collaborators. At the same time, they should ensure that the latter ones comply with their modus operandi (Dahlander & Wallin, 2020). In reality, it may prove difficult for the business leaders to trust the new partners. Unlike their employees, the external parties are not subject to the companies’ codes of conduct, rules, and regulations (Chesbrough, 2020; Shamah & Elssawabi, 2015). A few authors indicated that senior management may utilize extrinsic and intrinsic incentives to empower and motivate internal as well as external stakeholders to pursue their organization’s open innovation objectives (Chang, 2020; Greco et al., 2022; Holmes & Smart, 2009; Roszkowska-Menkes, 2018; Schmidt-Keilich & Schrader, 2019).
Some researchers identified possible threats during and after the implementation of joint projects. Very often, they contended that host organizations risk losing their locus of control to external stakeholders who are experts in their respective fields (Madanaguli et al., 2023). The latter ones may possess unique skills and competences that are not readily available within the organization. A few authors cautioned that the practitioners as well as their collaborators are entrusted to safeguard each other’s intangible assets. A number of researchers warned and cautioned that they may risk revealing insider information about sensitive commercial details relating to their intellectual capital (Gomes et al., 2021). As a result, companies may decide to collaborate on a few peripheral tasks as they may be wary of losing their return on investments if they share trade secrets with their new partners, who could easily become their competitors. Their proprietary knowledge concerns are of course real and vital for their future prospects. Therefore, their relationships with internal and external stakeholders should be based on mutual trust and understanding in order to increase the confidence in the projects’ outcomes (Ferraris et al., 2020; Sánchez-Teba et al., 2021).
The companies’ ongoing engagement with internal and external stakeholders as well as their strategic CSR initiatives and environmentally sustainable innovations can generate economic value, in the long run. This review confirms that for-profit organizations are increasingly using open innovation approaches. At the same time, they are following ethical practices, adopting responsible human resources management policies, and investing in green technologies to gain institutional legitimacy and to create competitive advantages for their business. Many authors reported that their corporate sustainability behaviors can enhance their organizations’ reputation and image among customers as well as with marketplace stakeholders. At the same time, their laudable practices may even improve their corporate financial performance.
During COVID-19, many businesses turned to open innovation’s collaborative approaches. Various stakeholders joined forces and worked with other organizations, including with competitors, on social projects that benefit the communities where they operate their companies. In many cases, practitioners have realized that such partnerships with certain stakeholders (like researchers, knowledgeable experts, creative businesses, and non-governmental institutions, among others) enable their organizations to find new ways to solve pressing problems and at the same time helped them build a positive reputation. Indeed, open innovation approaches can serve as a foundation for future win-win alliances, in line with sociological research demonstrating that trust develops when partners voluntarily go the extra mile, to create value to their business and to society at large.
Yet, this research revealed that there is still a gap in the academic literature that links CSR/corporate sustainability with open collaborative approaches. At the time of writing, this paper, there were only 45 contributions on the intersection of these notions.
A full version of this open-access paper can be accessed through publisher: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/bse.3377
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