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Innovation Blog


Innovating Through Vertical Expert Networks

Many of us have heard the old phrase, ‘If only Boeing knew what Boeing knows.’ Usually accompanied by a pronounced sigh and a shrug of resignation. This phrase succinctly sums up the fact that there are hidden nooks and crannies of genius lurking in the far-flung cubicles of our major corporations, underutilized, unrecognized and therefore, undervalued.

This condition of covert expertise is no longer being tolerated by both corporates, who are never ceasing to find ways of monetising assets, nor independent domain experts, aggressively seeking a piece of ‘upside’ to their innovative ideas rather than remaining content with being a sunk cost to ‘the suits’.

Over the past couple of years, Imaginatik has both seen and fostered something we call Vertical Expert Networks. At the risk of adding to a global acronym footprint, I’ll use the term VEN. These VENs are a specialized form of the topic of ‘open innovation’ that we’ve described in previous blogs. While typical ‘open innovation’ initiatives tend to originate from corporate problem statements and challenges to an open community of start-ups and specialists, the VEN begins with an independent effort to accumulate a critical mass of subscribing experts and, in turn, providing a forum for corporates to access them – a kind of rent-a-mob-of-wonks facility.

The organizing pattern here is not entirely new. We have seen hugely successful expert communities participate in solving problems with sites such as, which is one of the top 100 world websites for activity, providing a problem solving pool of developers to attack thorny programming issues. We can kind of see this as a horizontal expert network as it is an indispensable utility applicable across any industry. What is new here is the trend towards industry vertical-isation of expertise.

The VENs value-add to the ‘open innovation’ movement is that pools of experts do not need to register and be vetted multiple times for each large corporate innovation initiative. Large corporates do not have to risk low participation and therefore low expert liquidity by solely relying on their proprietary open innovation gateway; clearly, that risk is just another Boeing knowledge gap waiting to happen.

So the trick for a successful VEN is to create the attraction for the many-to-many (many experts and many corporates) to meet in the middle – the VEN’s platform. Let’s look at just a few.

The insurance industry vertical has long suffered from a reputation of being a stolid, boring industry, which struggled to compete for talent with its more vibrant financial services relatives, such as investment banking and hedge funds. A new VEN in insurance – Ingenin recognised this shortcoming immediately and is utilizing their platform as a means for large insurers to tap into talent that would not want to commit to careers and, perhaps, unprestigious CV entries, but are attracted to being seen as high yield problem solvers and innovators with the credibility that comes from the engagement with big names.

Another many-to-many relationship wanting some way to converge is the relationship between investors and data scientists. Investments vertical tends not to have a great appetite for trial and error nor, given the dramatic increase in the complexity of algorithmic analysis and trading, anytime to understand an arcane code base. A company called Quantopian has created a VEN of data scientists, attracting them with a profit share of any trades that an asset manager licenses to use to ply their trade and cunning. This is indeed a very clever way of a VEN to attract and bind the many-to-many audience.

The food industry vertical is another progressive actor in this field. The initiative has been the first to recognize that 80% of all food produced on earth are from small independent producers. Their VEN has accumulated a network of experts and large producers to solve a range of production, distribution, and formulation challenges on an on-going basis.

The key attraction provided by their VEN between the many experts and the many producers are three-fold. One is a food industry taxonomy to help organize micro-communities of experts. The food industry has a vast array of highly specialized areas such as dairy/creamer/stabilizers or meat/beef/coloration and even areas for odour design.

An advantage of this VEN is for experts to self-manage their expertise in a normalized framework of topics. An advantage for small or large producers is to quickly understand the network’s probability of solving their issue based on the inventory of experts within their problem domain’s required topics. Imaginatik’s graphic analytics provides this type of knowledge domain coverage maps.

The advantage for the large corporate agribusiness is that they can get agility that they tend to struggle with. In a VEN arrangement, they are able to develop their portfolio of smaller premium brand products without permanent staffing overheads.

The other ‘sticky’ advantage to this VEN is the opportunity for groups of independent producers to pool resources and initiate efforts and services that normally are restricted to the larger scale producers due to cost. The VEN is planning on offering product testing to small, medium and ad hoc producers on their network within the next year.

The VEN variation on ‘open innovation’ offers advantages to both large-scale corporate and small and individual participants. The platform itself provides needed quantification and precision as to the expertise available so the likes of a giant like Boeing will be better aware as to what they already have and what they may need from communities of agile minnows.

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