Dismantling Knowledge Boundaries at NASA: The Critical Role of Professional Identity in Open Innovation

Administrative Science Quarterly. Vol. 63(4)746–782, 2018

37 Pages Posted: 2 May 2014 Last revised: 12 Nov 2018

See all articles by Hila Lifshitz-Assaf

Hila Lifshitz-Assaf

New York University (NYU) - Leonard N. Stern School of Business; Harvard University - Business School (HBS)

Date Written: December 14, 2018


Using a longitudinal in-depth field study at NASA, I investigate how the open, or peer-production, innovation model affects R&D professionals, their work, and the locus of innovation. R&D professionals are known for keeping their knowledge work within clearly defined boundaries, protecting it from individuals outside those boundaries, and rejecting meritorious innovation that is created outside disciplinary boundaries. The open innovation model challenges these boundaries and opens the knowledge work to be conducted by anyone who chooses to contribute. At NASA, the open model led to a scientific breakthrough at unprecedented speed using unusually limited resources; yet it challenged not only the knowledge-work boundaries but also the professional identity of the R&D professionals. This led to divergent reactions from R&D professionals, as adopting the open model required them to go through a multifaceted transformation. Only R&D professionals who under- went identity refocusing work dismantled their boundaries, truly adopting the knowledge from outside and sharing their internal knowledge. Others who did not go through that identity work failed to incorporate the solutions the open model produced. Adopting open innovation without a change in R&D professionals’ identity resulted in no real change in the R&D process. This paper reveals how such processes unfold and illustrates the critical role of professional identity work in changing knowledge-work boundaries and shifting the locus of innovation.

Keywords: innovation; knowledge boundaries; boundary work; professional identity; open innovation; identity work; knowledge boundary work; technology, work and organizations

Suggested Citation

Lifshitz-Assaf, Hila, Dismantling Knowledge Boundaries at NASA: The Critical Role of Professional Identity in Open Innovation (December 14, 2018). Administrative Science Quarterly. Vol. 63(4)746–782, 2018, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2431717 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2431717

Hila Lifshitz-Assaf (Contact Author)

New York University (NYU) - Leonard N. Stern School of Business ( email )

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Harvard University - Business School (HBS) ( email )

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