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The world is not, as they say, getting smaller, and technology is not, as they say, making distances disappear. Rather, new communication technologies are creating a myriad new spaces in the real and virtual worlds where individuals can find and exchange information. Increasingly, they can also choose what they want to find there, and how. The BBC, and Google News for instance, allow users to decide what news they want through user-designed homepages.

Technology is allowing people to develop and join spaces where they can find all the information they need – both personal and professional. These spaces (networks: communities of practice, social networks, professional associations, knowledge networks, etc.) have developed their own languages, systems, norms and procedures, giving members ever more powerful tools to access and share the knowledge they need.

Think tanks like ODI have traded successfully for decades on creating and sharing specialised knowledge by hot-housing groups of smart people. But they may not be able to do so for much longer.

First, new communication technology is decentralising the production of knowledge. Specialist knowledge is being created worldwide in informal spaces. As a result, individual think tanks can rarely claim to have the best in-house experts on everything they work on. There are almost certainly better ideas elsewhere – if we look hard enough. The difficulty lies in finding them.

The second challenge is that new technology is also changing the way that people communicate and access knowledge. Users don’t wait for knowledge any longer. There is an increasing reliance on syndication and mash-up technologies to aggregate knowledge from a multitude of sources without ever visiting them. Users no longer just ‘take it all in’; they are selective in what they want from each source. The location in which information is accessed is closely related to how it is accessed. Social and professional networks take time to develop – even online – and the time spent accessing information in these places is proportional to the value assigned to the knowledge obtained. So think tanks do not just compete with other specialist knowledge producers, they must also compete with the knowledge spaces their audiences are creating for themselves. This is the real challenge.

The concept of open innovation provides a possible solution. Open innovation is an innovation paradigm that argues that organisations can no longer rely on the intellectual property they develop internally. They must also be open to the idea of buying or licencing it from other organisations. Wikipedia provides a simple comparison of the principles of closed and open innovation systems:

Closed innovation Principles

Open innovation Principles

The smart people in our field work for us.

Not all the smart people work for us. We need to work with smart people inside and outside our company.

To profit from research and development, (R&D) we must discover it, develop it and ship it ourselves.

External R&D can create significant value; internal R&D is needed to claim some portion of that value.

If we discover it ourselves, we will get it to market first.

We don't have to originate the research to profit from it.

The company that gets an innovation to market first will win.

Building a better business model is better than getting to market first.

If we create the most and the best ideas in the industry, we will win.

If we make the best use of internal and external ideas, we will win.

We should control our innovation process, so that our competitors don't profit from our ideas.

We should profit from others' use of our innovation process, and we should buy others' intellectual property (IP) whenever it advances our own business model.

Source: Wikipedia/Open_innovation

Open innovation underpins two new approaches to research and communication: ‘think nets’ and, for lack of a better term, ‘being there communications’.

The term think net came to my attention in an analysis of the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) by Stephen Yeo and Richard Portes. A think net, unlike a think tank, does not invest in a large cadre of in-house experts to guarantee quality research outputs. Instead, it invests in developing a network of experts working in different research and policy spaces and with access to different sources and types of knowledge. The think net maintains its flexibility and relevance by using the networks of its members as an open innovation structure. Through these networks, the think net can benefit from intellectual property developed elsewhere.

Think nets are critical knowledge brokers: filterers and amplifiers of knowledge, as well as conveners of diverse experts and ideas. They are also smaller and more manageable than traditional think tanks.

‘Being there communications’ refers to a new paradigm of communications that, rather than trying to bring audiences into a think tank’s own space, takes its messages to the audience. Increasingly, think tanks are using RSS tools to facilitate this. Readers no longer have to visit websites but can browse through their previously selected RSS feeds. In the very near future, it will be possible for users to further specify the type of knowledge they need and when. ‘Being there’ requires think tanks to develop Facebook- and Google desktop-like widgets and applications to ensure that their knowledge is just one mouse click away in the spaces in which their audiences ‘work and play’. ODI’s new page on Facebook is one of the ways ODI is attempting to establish its presence in these important ‘knowledge spaces’.

Both paradigms are compatible. Think nets allow knowledge producers to learn from each other. Knowledge spaces allow knowledge users to assimilate new knowledge in their own context.

The emergence of think nets and knowledge spaces present a real challenge to traditional think tanks. They can no longer rely on hot-housing smart people to generate and disseminate new ideas. They must embrace open innovation. But what are the implications? ODI is already moving in the right direction, increasingly focusing on aggregating and synthesising knowledge from a wide range of sources to contribute to high-level policy processes. Our website and overall communications mechanisms are shifting towards users in this way and we are investing in building global partnerships. But we have only just begun thinking about and planning for the long-term structural and organisational implications.