Karim R. Lakhani

Lumry Family Associate Professor of Business Administration

Karim R. Lakhani is the Lumry Family Associate Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School and the Principal Investigator of the Harvard-NASA Tournament Lab at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science. He specializes in the management of technological innovation in firms and communities. His research is on distributed innovation systems and the movement of innovative activity to the edges of organizations and into communities. He has extensively studied the emergence of open source software communities and their unique innovation and product development strategies. He has also investigated how critical knowledge from outside of the organization can be accessed through innovation contests. Currently Professor Lakhani is investigating incentives and behavior in contests and the mechanisms behind scientific team formation through field experiments on the TopCoder platform and the Harvard Medical School.

Professsor Lakhani’s research on distributed innovation has been published in Harvard Business Review, Innovations, Management Science, Nature Biotechnology, Organization Science, Research Policy and the Sloan Management Review. He is the co-editor of Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software (MIT Press), a book on community-based innovation. He has also published teaching cases on leading organizations practicing distributed innovation including: Data.gov, InnoCentive, Google, Myelin Repair Foundation, SAP, Threadless, TopCoder and Wikipedia. His research has been featured in publications like BusinessWeek, The Boston Globe, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc., The New York Times, The New York Academy of Sciences Magazine, Science, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Wired.

Professor Lakhani was awarded his Ph.D. in management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also holds an MS degree in Technology and Policy from MIT, and a Bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering and Management from McMaster University in Canada. He was a recipient of the Aga Khan Foundation International Scholarship and a four year doctoral fellowship from Canada's Social Science and Humanities Research Council. Prior to coming to HBS he served as a Lecturer in the Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship group at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.  Professor Lakhani has also worked in sales, marketing and new product development roles at GE Healthcare and was a consultant with The Boston Consulting Group.  He was also the inaugural recipient of the TUM-Peter Pribilla Innovation Leadership Award.

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Press / Media

Can America Invent Its Way Back?

BusinessWeek, by Michael Mandel, 12 Sept. 2008

Today, researchers are focusing on ways to make those undertakings more efficient. "Innovation is not just exerting effort and spending money, it's problem-solving," says Karim Lakhani, a professor at Harvard Business School. Lakhani has been studying what is called distributed innovation, in which solutions to a business or technical problem are solicited from a wide variety of people. Open-source software or companies like InnoCentive, which encourages outside researchers to work on corporate problems, are good examples. By contrast, most companies are unwilling to draw on outside expertise. "It's the broadcast of the problem that is important," argues Lakhani. "By publicizing a problem, we can get access to better ideas."

If You Have a Problem, Ask Everyone

New York Times, by Cornelia Dean, 22 July 2008

The idea that solutions can come from anywhere, and from people with seemingly unrelated work, is another key. Dr. Lakhani said his study of InnoCentive found that "the further the problem was from the solver's expertise, the more likely they were to solve it," often by applying specialized knowledge or instruments developed for another purpose.

The Customer is the Company

Inc., by Max Chafkin, June 2008

Whether it's called user innovation, crowdsourcing, or open source, it means drastically rethinking your relationship with your customers. "Threadless completely blurs that line of who is a producer and who is a consumer," says Karim Lakhani, a professor at the Harvard Business School. "The customers end up playing a critical role across all its operations: idea generation, marketing, sales forecasting. All that has been distributed."

The Power of the Prize

Fast Company, by Anya Kamentz, 18 April 2008

Karim R. Lakhani, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, has conducted academic research into the power of prizes -- specifically, the value that diverse minds and experiences can supply. He analyzed 166 problems posted to the "crowdsourcing" marketplace InnoCentive. "Not only did the odds of a solver's success actually increase in fields outside his expertise," he says, such as mathematicians taking on chemistry or biologists looking at physics, "but the further a challenge was from his specialty, the greater the likelihood of success. That is very counterintuitive."

Science by the Masses

Science, by John Travis, 28 March 2008

InnoCentive has drawn a diverse crowd of scientists and engineers into its virtual work force. About 40% of those who register to see challenge summaries have Ph.D.s. Karim Lakhani of Harvard Business School in Boston, who was given access to InnoCentive's data on challenges from 2001 to 2004 and also surveyed about 350 of its solvers, has found that curiosity and pride motivate them as much as the prize money. He suggests that the company's crowd-sourcing approach reflects a "broader trend of democratization of science." As the United States and Europe churn out Ph.D.s, and countries such as China and India dramatically expand their scientific capabilities, more and more people with science training exist outside the traditionally elite research universities. "Many people have the skills and talents to solve science problems," says Lakhani.

T-Shirt Maker's Style, Drawn from Web Users

Washington Post, by Alan Sipress, 18 June 2007

The trend is gaining pace as corporate executives embrace the openness of the Web. Analysts said the promising gains in productivity will ultimately benefit the wider economy. "It's a way to access the distributed knowledge that is out there on the Web," said Karim R. Lakhani, a professor at Harvard Business School who has studied the trend. "You can now basically focus on your core business." This approach exploits the vast human wisdom and expertise available via the Internet. But crowdsourcing is less of a collaborative endeavor than a means of finding individuals with the right skills for the right price.

How To Educate Your Business Leaders About IT (Without Alienating Them)

CIO Magazine, by Michael Fitzgerald, May 2007

“Businesses are confused about technology,” says Karim R. Lakhani, an assistant professor in technology and operations management at Harvard Business School. He says that many businesspeople suffer from—and tolerate—IT ignorance in part because IT discussions have traditionally focused on the technology itself rather than on how the product of IT—information—affects business operations. “CIOs should reduce the emphasis of the ‘T’ side and push the ‘I’ side,” he adds. It’s a forgotten part of the business in most organizations. The CIO has to step up—nobody else is thinking about it.”

The Wisdom of Crowdsourcing

PROFIT Magazine, by Rick Spence, March 2007

Karim Lakhani, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School who studies crowdsourcing, says that open source has more than proven itself in software, with even Microsoft admitting it yields efficient products. But Cambrian's model is unique in trying to fuse open source to a traditional company format: "They've decided that the core market research, production and development functions can be done by the community." With Cambrian's compensation scheme and respect for member participation, Lakhani suspects that it has the right concept: "I think it's the most interesting model out there now."

Prizes for Solutions to Problems Play Valuable Role in Innovation

Wall Street Journal, by David Wessel, 25 January 2007

After examining 166 problems posted by 26 research labs on the InnoCentive site over four years, Karim Lakhani, a Harvard Business School professor, found 240 people, on average, examined each problem, 10 offered answers and 29.5% of the problems were solved.

Web T-Shirt Company Builds a Community, Business

National Public Radio, Morning Edition by Jenny Lawton, 11 December 2006

100,000 Heads are Better than One

Boston Globe, by Chris Reidy, 21 August 2006

InnoCentive can also point to successful outcomes. Karim R. Lakhani, now a Harvard Business School assistant professor, reviewed company results and found that 30 percent of challenges not solvable in-house were solved by an InnoCentive solver. What's important is that InnoCentive doesn't act as a matchmaker, Lakhani said. Instead, network scientists self-select the challenges they want to tackle.

The Rise of Crowdsourcing

Wired, by Jeff Howe, June 2006

Karim Lakhani: "The strength of a network like InnoCentive’s is exactly the diversity of intellectual background." Lakhani and his three coauthors surveyed 166 problems posted to InnoCentive from 26 different firms. "We actually found the odds of a solver’s success increased in fields in which they had no formal expertise," Lakhani says. He has put his finger on a central tenet of network theory, what pioneering sociologist Mark Granovetter describes as "the strength of weak ties." The most efficient networks are those that link to the broadest range of information, knowledge, and experience.