Open innovation explains how companies have changed completely their approach to the development of breakthrough innovation. From a research and development model where all intuitions came from the company itself to a model in which new ideas derive from the interaction from multiple actors, such as a spin-off, competitors, universities, licensing or joint-venture. We are experimenting this new approach due to the availability of highly educated people, more than any other economic era. So, companies have started to search new ways outside their boundaries to be more efficient and time-respondent to the market with new ideas.
In the innovation sphere, a central role is covered by the Lead Users. This term was coined by Eric von Hippel in 1986 and indicates the consumers with a particular talent in identifying a need before it exists on the market. Normally, they represent a very little portion of a market served by a company, and most companies do not give them the right attention. So, they emerge creating itself solutions to solve their problem. When the solution is created and shared with a community, it becomes a product or additional services. As a results manufacturers benefit from users who have created their own a new application or updgraded version of their product.
Von Hippel suggests that to identify lead users is necessary to first identify the underlying trends which result in these users or customers that have a leading position. Lead users are those who are at the leading edge of new trends.
Companies, first, can try to be more attentive to get input from all who interact with customers, including service, maintenance, sales, marketing, engineering or technical support.
Breakthrough innovations developed with and thanks to the Lead Users could come also from other clusters. It can be very useful to look beyond existing consumers, to users of complementary or substitute goods, in the similar markets.
Using the lead user theory in the innovation practices allow companies to develop products, processes, services and business model which are especially near to the market and are customer-oriented, as well as aimed at the final users.
With a right system of benefits and incentives, the lead user will be very willing to collaborate with companies to develop new solutions. In most cases, they are advanced users, pioneers, creative and visionary tinkerers who feel needs before the masses and they derive from innovation a big benefit because they are dissatisfied with the existing services, product or processes.
Lead users are an extremely valuable cluster of existing or potential consumers, who can contribute to the identification of new opportunities and emerging concepts related to a product, or a market. Open innovation and lead users are strongly connected as they both share the view of knowledge as something to shape every time for creating more benefits.