What is the best way to solve challenging problems?  Who inside or outside the organization is best equipped to do so?


Business scholars Karim Lakhani and Lars Bo Jeppesen studied Innocentive, the service that helps connect companies that have a problem or technical challenge with ideas and solutions that anyone in the world can offer. Their research found that when a company posts a highly complex problem, they are not typically solved by professionals in the discipline in question, but rather by what they describe as a “borderline expert” – someone with knowledge of the field in question, but whose expertise lies in an adjacent field. The second marker of success involved individuals who have “interdisciplinary expertise” – the ability to draw connections between one subject and another. One of the scholars opined, “You have to be close enough to comprehend the technical aspects, but not so close that you’re biased by the way those immersed in the problem tend to think.” (The Atlantic)


This research suggests some takeaways for decision making, human-resources planning and staffing.  There are benefits to hiring people with non-traditional backgrounds for work in a related field. Diversity of a person’s professional experience can offer a broader range of insights and ways of approaching a problem. Changing a person’s area of focus and analysis can broaden his or her ability to make connections and gain insights. Companies should avoid having staff operate in siloes of expertise among colleagues who share a similar expertise.


In a recent real-world example, a team of researchers in Boston and Japan have discovered something other scientists are calling “shocking,” “astounding,” “revolutionary,” and “almost like alchemy” – a reference to the ancient belief that lead could be transformed into gold: Researchers learned that by dipping mature adult cells into a bath of acid for half an hour, the cells will transform on their own into stem cells. Currently, the art of creating such induced pluripotential stem cells or iPS cells, involves a series of highly technical steps with the use of specialized drugs. (Boston Globe)


This discovery could be a transformational landmark in the application of stem cell research, which has spent years looking for approaches to offer stem cell therapies that do not involve creating or destroying embryos. What is also significant, as noted by the Boston Globe, is that “the approach is so simple and so out-of-the-box that it might never have been tried if it hadn’t been for the persistence and curiosity of Dr. Charles Vacanti, an anesthesiologist working largely outside the field of stem cell science” [emphasis added].


Consider that Dr. Vacanti works in an adjacent field to stem-cell research but is not considered an expert therein, not dissimilar from the most successful researchers found in the study on Innocentive.



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