User-led innovation

Here is another short article that I wrote on the topic of user-led innovation. Many of my clients are asking about this topic. Because we are so far away from the industrialised countries, and because we have such huge geographical spaces to cover, we are faced by sophisticated and sometimes unreasonable demands. Therefore lead firms, lead customers, government and problems solvers are all asking for some very demanding solutions. Many of them are not waiting for new innovations to come from the markets, they are simply innovating to solve their own problems.

In recent years the focus in value chain promotion has increasingly emphasised the importance of systematic and market-based interventions. Within innovation system promotion, markets are important not only as selectors or buyers of successful innovations. Specialised users or unmet local needs could also be used as an impulse to stimulate innovation in a specific part of a value chain. The challenge here is not to ‘import’ technology or ‘solve’ a problem, but to get industry and its supporting structures to respond to this opportunity. This can often be achieved by better articulating unmet needs, or facilitating interaction between innovative producers and user groups.

Authors such as Von Hippel (2005, 1988) have over the years made a strong case for recognition of the innovations introduced by users, especially lead users. For instance, Von Hippel argues that customers (markets) often know what design criteria they have, and if a producer can capture this knowledge then new products could be created. Other authors, most notably Michael Porter, has in several publications indicated that the force of market demand not only shapes the design of products and technologies or strategies of firms (i.e. 5 Forces analysis), but that it could affect industry structure (i.e. the Diamond of Competitiveness). In his work Porter also emphasises the role of sophisticated or demanding customers in the innovativeness of firms.

Lead users may also provide unique opportunities for firms to innovate by customising or combining existing elements of technologies to respond to the needs of a potential customer group. For instance, many medical devices originate from the US or Europe. But surgeons and operating theatre staff working in distant locations may have unique functional requirements for these instruments, and if approached or observed in their working environments may provide important clues or insights on how instruments can be customised to improve their functionality. While firms in developing countries may be far from large markets, they are often close to specialised or niche users that may then create opportunities for innovators.

The risk of an emphasis on user-led innovation is that path dependence may occur and that blindness to rival technologies may result in a marketplace being disrupted by a rival technology. Path dependence occurs when producers respond to the demands of a certain kind of customer through investment choices that do not allow the producer to switch to a different technology or market. These customers may in turn be exposed to other market forces or technological change processes that may affect their continued demand for a given technology. The risk of the strong governance of strong buyers in the chain may then lead to a tunnel view that does not consider the upgrading potentials and requirements of the whole innovation system in the sector or region, but a too-narrow perspective on companies and their need to upgrade according to the demands of the main buyers and final customers[1]. The insights as well as interventions may be too narrow and may not lead to more proactive knowledge loops but to a reactive orientation that does not encourage new ways of doing things in the system.

Experienced value chain practitioners will be able to identify the opportunities and the risks of working with lead users as sources of innovation, as in value chains lead customers often emerge who can be used to better position certain actors in a chain. Although this usually works to the benefit of certain kinds of chain actors, it could also be argued that it deepens the dependence on specific kinds of customers (resulting in path dependence).


VON HIPPEL, E. (1988) The sources of innovation, New York, NY, Oxford University Press.

VON HIPPEL, E. (2005) Democratizing innovation, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

[1] For instance, the IDS has published several papers on this and related topics which can be found at

The increased importance of knowledge-intensive business services in a knowledge-intensive era

As some of you may know, my PhD research was all about knowledge intensive business services and market failures. In a recent publication I wrote a short piece on knowledge intensive business services that we did not use in the final publication. I thought that perhaps it would be useful to some of my readers if I simply posted it here.

Your thoughts and contributions would be appreciated.

Over the last fifteen years, development practitioners have become more aware of the importance of business services to small enterprises. For many, the essence of the debate about Business Development Services (BDS) was about providing commercially viable ‘business development services’ or BDS to small enterprises. Typically these services related to generic or strategic services (Committee of Donor Agencies for Small Enterprise Development, 2001). In many cases generic (and unappreciated) services were promoted to small enterprises not really interested in competition or improved performance, but in survival. Furthermore, BDS interventions were not always systemic in nature and frequently did not consider how markets function[1]. Value chain practitioners were quick to respond by identifying business services that were needed by actors in value chains, and finding ways to increase commercial transactions in these services in order to strengthen the enterprises.

Almost at the same time an academic debate was going on about the increased importance of knowledge and specialised services as inputs into manufacturing and the rest of the economy (Wölfl, 2000, Wölfl, 2003, Bryson and Daniels, 2007). In the knowledge-based era, business is becoming more knowledge intensive, resulting in certain services being labelled as knowledge-intensive business services or KIBS (Roberts, 2003:130, Toivonen, 2004, Miles, 2007:278). Miles (2007:277) explains that almost all activities in an economy are based on some knowledge, and that all societies are knowledge based. Over time the knowledge intensity not only of manufacturing (and intermediate goods) but also of farming and the service sector has increased. Knowledge-intensive business services are concerned with the collection, analysis and distribution of information and knowledge, and play a significant role in the creation, dissemination and application of knowledge both within and between firms at the level of the region and the nation and internationally (Antonelli, 1999, Andersen et al., 2000, Miles et al., 1995).

The discussion of knowledge in business services should focus on what knowledge services are used for. Miles (2007:277) explains that when people refer to knowledge intensiveness, they refer to highly specialised knowledge, or codified knowledge. This knowledge is about the principles, ‘know why’, and methods that can be generalised across numerous specific situations and problems, and should be contrasted with ‘know-how’ and ‘know-whom’ knowledge which is tied to particular tasks and places.

Miles et al. (1995:ii) define knowledge-intensive business services as services that:

  • rely heavily upon professional knowledge;
  • supply products which are themselves primarily sources of information and knowledge to their users (for example reports or training consultancy);
  • use their knowledge to produce services that are intermediate inputs to their clients (for example communication and computer services);
  • own knowledge-generating and information-processing activities;
  • are of competitive importance and supplied mainly to other businesses.

Knowledge-intensive business services can be classified into two broad classes. First is the social and institutional knowledge involved in many traditional professional services, with the emphasis on problem solving or applying rules and procedures (Miles, 2007:280). Accounting or communication services typically fall into this class. Second is the knowledge that has risen to the fore in recent years, which is more focused on science and technology. These services often deal with artefacts and the real world, such as aircraft, engineering, construction and infrastructure. There are services such as architectural design that often combine these two classes of services.

Kox and Rubalcaba (2007:31-34) explain that business services also play an important role in national innovation systems by performing the following functions:

  • They develop technological advances through engineering and other fields.
  • They develop non-technological innovations in areas such as accounting, organisational development and consultancy.
  • They diffuse knowledge between firms by spreading ‘best practice’ information.
  • They play an important role in surpassing human capital indivisibilities[2]. This is especially important for small and medium sized enterprises that could previously (due to internal economies of scale) not afford access to certain professional services.

Many of the services mentioned in this section operate at the frontiers of new technologies and are essential for the success of other high-technology industries (Di Cagno and Meliciana, 2005).

However, there is a tendency for business services, especially the more specialised services, to be concentrated in urban areas. This means that firms have access to specialised services and are able to outsource less critical business activities, while concentrating on their core business areas. The service providers who serve these businesses play an important role in diffusing knowledge between firms.


ANDERSEN, B., HOWELLS, J., HULL, R., MILES, I. & ROBERTS, J. (2000) Knowledge and innovation in the new service economy, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar.

ANTONELLI, C. (1999) The microdynamics of technological change, New York, NY, Routledge.

BRYSON, J. R. & DANIELS, P. W. (2007) The handbook of service industries. IN BRYSON, J. R. & DANIELS, P. W. (Eds.). Cheltenham, Edward Elgar.

COMMITTEE OF DONOR AGENCIES FOR SMALL ENTERPRISE DEVELOPMENT (2001) Business development services for small enterprises: principles for donor intervention. Washington, DC, Committee of Donor Agencies for Small Enterprise Development, The World Bank SME Dept, The World Bank Group.

DI CAGNO, D. & MELICIANA, V. (2005) Do inter-sectoral flows of services matter for productivity growth? An input/output analysis of OECD countries. Economics of Innovation and New Technology, 14, :149–171.

KOX, H. L. M. & RUBALCABA, L. B. (2007) Analysing the contribution of business services to European economic growth. Bruges European Economic Research Papers. Belgium, College of Europe.

MILES, I. (2007) Knowledge-intensive services and innovation. IN BRYSON, J. R. & DANIELS, P. W. (Eds.) The handbook of service industries. Cheltenham, Edward Elgar.

MILES, I., KASTRINOS, N., BILDERBEEK, R., DEN HERTOG, P., HUNTINK, W. & BOUMAN, M. (1995) Knowledge-intensive business services. Users, carriers and sources of innovation. Brussels, European Commission, European Innovation Monitoring System (EIMS).

ROBERTS, J. (2003) Competition in the business services sector: implications for the competitiveness of the European economy. Competition and Change, 7, :127-146.

TOIVONEN, M. (2004) Expertise as business – long term development and future prospects of knowledge-intensive business services (KIBS). Department of Industrial Engineering and Management. Helsinki, Helsinki University of Technology (Espoo, Finland).

WÖLFL, A. (2000) The service economy. Business and industry policy forum series. Paris, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

WÖLFL, A. (2003) Productivity growth in service industries: an assessment of recent patterns and the role of measurement. OECD Science, Technology and Industry Working Papers. Paris, OECD Publishing.

[1] This is the topic that I dealt with extensively in my PHD dissertation.

[2] Indivisibilities refer to the difficulty of subdividing something into smaller parts. For instance, it is not possible to divide an engineer into smaller pieces. You either appoint an engineer, or you cannot afford to. With the emergence of the knowledge-intensive service sector, a small enterprise cannot gain access to a service provider for a fraction of the cost of appointing a full-time engineer.

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