Long before HBS professor Karim R. Lakhani used crowdsourcing to develop pioneering research on the science of innovation, his experiences working at General Electric and the Boston Consulting Group piqued his curiosity about how such companies could involve thousands of participants in complex problem-solving challenges.

“I became a professor to understand why communities, like those that create open-source software, were innovating. It did not correlate with my intuition about the best ways to incentivize innovation and organize people,” says Lakhani, who believes the digital transformation of business and society is changing not only how we work and live, but also how we tackle the toughest issues.

Lakhani oversees the Crowd Innovation Lab, a Harvard University initiative focused on crowdsourcing. He conducts field experiments using online networks of external problem solvers organized in two categories: competitions and collaborative communities. His work has an impact both on practice, by helping partners solve difficult innovation dilemmas, and on theory, by optimizing design parameters needed to engineer solutions.

Working with NASA and Topcoder, a leading online crowd platform, Lakhani developed the NASA Tournament Lab to create contests that improve computer codes and data analytics solutions. With Harvard Medical School researchers, he designed a competition to break data bottlenecks and speed up DNA sequencing. Recently, Lakhani collaborated with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard to further genomic research, developing a contest that aimed to improve the benchmark algorithm set by Broad scientists, which it did, 14 times faster.

Lakhani explains that when structuring an experiment, he has to decide between a competition and a collaborative community, the number of participants needed, and what incentives to provide. In most instances, he recommends that “an organization’s internal problem solvers should define the parameters of a challenge rather than attempt to solve it, encourage diverse ideas through a contest, and then switch to a community model where people can assess the different approaches and collaborate on refining the best solution.”

Interactions with a variety of crowds — including students and exec utives in his classrooms, fellow researchers, and the HBS alumni community — inform Lakhani’s work. He draws on the insights he gains from those participating in his Executive Education courses and shares them with students in his MBA elective Digital Innovation and Transformation. And as cofounder of HBS’s Digital Initiative, he brings together faculty, students, alumni, and practitioners to exchange ideas about the digital transformation of business.

Lakhani also plans to collaborate with scholars from Harvard Medical School and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in developing a new Innovation Science Lab to examine innovation at the juncture of business and science. “We’re at the beginning stages of a re-architecting of our companies and economies based on digital technologies—notably artificial intelligence and machine learning,” he says. “With this new lab we will continue to explore ideas at the forefront of research.”

photo by Dana Maxson

“The digital transformation enables us to re-engineer and re-architect organizations and consider innovative ways to create and capture value. Technology is helping us amass more data, faster and cheaper, so that we can make better decisions in real time and micro-targeted to a consumer or a patient.”

Karim R. Lakhani, professor of business administration


Research at Work: Crowdsourcing Challenge

Harvard Business School, in conjunction with its partners, hosted a series of challenges to develop algorithms for faster DNA sequence alignment and to improve analysis of gene expression data.


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