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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical Background
  5. Research Field
  6. Method
  7. Findings
  8. Differences between English- and Chinese-Speaking Communities
  9. Discussion
  10. Implication and Outlook
  11. References

In this study we shed light on the impact of cultural differences on creative processes and innovation creation in online communities. Analysing English- and Chinese-speaking online basketball communities, we investigate how innovations develop in virtual consumer groups and what motives drive members to engage in joint innovation creation. Similarly to findings from creativity research in offline contexts, we find that culture does have an influence on creative processes and expressions. While English- and Chinese-speaking online communities are similar in their high quality and quantity of creative outputs, they differ with regard to innovation patterns and the kinds of emerging innovations. From a practical perspective the findings suggest that companies that aim to collaborate with communities across cultures have to align the interaction with the members' different expectations and routines. Further, what communities consider as creative and innovative may depend on culture.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical Background
  5. Research Field
  6. Method
  7. Findings
  8. Differences between English- and Chinese-Speaking Communities
  9. Discussion
  10. Implication and Outlook
  11. References

Creative consumers attracted by new products and innovations can be found in online communities that are centred around common interests (e.g., Kozinets, 1999; McAlexander, Schouten & Koenig, 2002; Muniz & Schau, 2005; Jeppesen & Frederiksen, 2006; Füller, Jawecki & Mühlbacher, 2007). Consumers use the Internet to exchange experiences regarding the latest equipment, share ideas for product modifications, or develop entirely new concepts. At ‘outdoorseiten.net’, for example, enthusiastic backpackers develop their own outdoor gear – from self-designed lightweight tents to high-performance jackets. Members of ‘iLounge.com’, an Apple iPod community, don't just complain about the short lifespan of the irreplaceable iPod battery or the iPod display, which easily scratches and breaks. They also come up with design proposals for the next generation of the iPod and discuss the features it should incorporate.

Given the innovative potential of online communities, it is interesting for both researchers as well as practitioners to understand how members' knowledge and creativity enable them to come up with new, often superior innovations. According to Burroughs and Mick (2004), it is generally surprising that consumer creativity is such a rare topic in consumer research. Despite the fact that innovative consumer behaviour is an integral part in the daily life of every consumer, little is known about when, why or how consumers act creatively (Burroughs & Mick, 2004; Moreau & Dahl, 2005).

One aspect which has to date not been addressed in the literature is how cultural differences impact creative processes and innovative outputs in online communities. In an offline context, culture is known to have a strong influence on creativity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988; Lubart, 1999; Niu & Sternberg, 2001, 2002), more precisely, the definition of creativity, its creative expression, the way how creativity is nurtured, as well as social expectations and evaluation of creative individuals, activities and products. But can these findings also be applied for virtual groups?

In this study we investigate if creative processes in online communities are also dependent on communities' cultural backgrounds. In detail, we explore the processes and patterns of how innovations evolve, what drives members to engage in creative activities, and the innovative output with regard to its kind, quality and quantity.

Theoretical Background

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical Background
  5. Research Field
  6. Method
  7. Findings
  8. Differences between English- and Chinese-Speaking Communities
  9. Discussion
  10. Implication and Outlook
  11. References

Coming up with innovative ideas and problem solutions is considered a highly creative task and an important precondition for successful innovations (Amabile et al., 1996). Creativity is considered the starting point for innovation on both the individual and team level. Often, creativity is equated with the ability to come up with unique yet appropriate ideas and novel solutions (Shalley, 1991; Amabile, 1996; Ford, 1996). An outcome is considered creative if it surpasses previous products in the domain (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). Usually, external judges – experts or peers – that are recognized in the field collectively determine whether or not something is considered creative (Sternberg & Lubart, 1991).

The Creative Process

The creative process comprises several phases. For example, Wallas (1926, as cited in Torrance, 1988) describes four steps in the creative process: preparation, incubation, illumination and revision. According to Amabile (1996), creative outcomes follow a sequence of five steps: (1) problem or task identification, (2) preparation, (3) response generation, (4) response validation and communication, and (5) outcome. When the solutions generated either fulfil or fail to fulfil initial requirements, the creative process ends. If there are some practical ideas, but no satisfactory solution, some process iterations may occur until a more advanced outcome is reached or task motivation has fallen below a minimum level, applying the additional knowledge gained in previous trails. While successful outcomes may stimulate task motivation, lead to increased knowledge, and initiate even more creative outputs (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975, 2002), failures – as a confirmation of incompetence – may lead to frustration and decreased motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 2002).

The creativity level of the outcome is determined by the creative talent of the individual and the social environment facilitating or undermining creative outputs (Amabile, 1996; Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). On an individual level, task motivation, domain-relevant skills and creativity-relevant processes are considered main components of creativity. In addition to the individual creativity components, the social environment affects an individual's creativity (Taggar, 2002). The influence of social factors on individual creativity results from communication and social interaction (Amabile, 1988). Encouragement, challenge, unconditional rewards, adequate pressure, support, autonomy, group diversity and cultural norms are considered social factors that enhance creativity (Kanter, 1988; Amabile et al., 1996). Encouragement of creative behaviour is recognized as the most important factor in stimulating creativity. Fair and supportive evaluations of new ideas, honest feedback, recognition, collaborative flow of ideas and exposure to other potentially relevant ideas increase an individual's intrinsic motivation to generate new ideas (Amabile et al., 1996). On a group level, mutual openness to ideas, clearly articulated goals, constructive challenging of ideas, and shared commitment induce creative output. An innovative culture inspires risk taking, rewards creative output and craves collaboration and sharing. Within such cultures, creativity is valued and brings a certain degree of prestige and status to the designers (Perry-Smith & Shalley, 2003).

Impact of Group Diversity on Creativity

Recently, it has been shown that highly creative outputs and radical innovations often emerge in groups consisting of motivated and skilled individuals with diverse backgrounds. Major inventions, including the television, airplane and light bulb, rather stem from joint collaboration in innovation networks than from the lone genius (Sawyer, 2007). Collaboration in informal, self-managed networks with distributed leadership fosters creative solutions (Scribner et al., 2007). The open discourse among a broad mixture of talent reveals unexpected insights that drive innovation and avoid groupthink that may lame creativity and bias the assessment of the group's creative performance (Kratzer, Hölzle & Gemünden, 2010). Research in the open source software (OSS) context shows that community members rather differ in their behaviours and take on different roles in the collaborative innovation process. Nonnecke, Preece and Andrews (2004), for example, claimed that open-source projects not only consist of a few developers and a larger number of discussants, but also of passive, silent peripheral listeners and observers. Using social network analysis (SNA), Toral, Martinez-Torres and Barrero (2010) identified so called ‘brokers’ who behave as intermediaries between expert software developers and peripheral users. In the context of children creativity, Kratzer and Lettl (2008, 2009) discovered that network position strongly influences and can predict creativity as well as lead userness. Individuals who are positioned as bridging links between different groups show high degrees of creativity as they have access to diverse knowledge and sticky information considered as important for the generation of new ideas (Csikszentmihalyi & Sawyer, 1995).

Impact of Culture on Creativity

Creativity and creative processes are not only influenced by individual characteristics and diversity but also by culture. Among others, Lubart (1999) and Niu and Sternberg (2001, 2002) point out that culture has an impact on the definition of creativity, its creative expression, the way creativity is nurtured and directed towards certain activities, as well as social expectations and evaluation of creative individuals, activities and products.

In the literature a variety of reasons for the impact of culture on creativity are discussed, including societies' different educational systems and styles, cultural myths and religious precepts, reward systems, politics, research infrastructures, as well as individuals' cognitive capacity and willingness to take risks (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988; Niu & Sternberg, 2001, 2002, 2003; Rank, Pace & Frese, 2004). Insights into the impact of culture on creativity can also be found in worldview theory (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988; Niu & Sternberg, 2003). In this context, ‘worldview’ refers to ‘shared attitudes, beliefs, norms, role and self-definitions, and values of members of each culture organized around a theme’ (Triandis, 1996, p. 407). Worldview theory explains that societies may have different expressions of individual creativity due to peoples' distinct worldviews of individualism vs. collectivism and independence vs. interdependence (Triandis, 1975, 1977; Markus & Kitayama, 1991). For instance, Niu and Sternberg (2001, 2003) explain differences in the creativity of Eastern and Western cultures by drawing from worldview theory. In Western cultures (such as American culture), people hold an independent perspective of the self. They organize their behaviour mainly by reference to their own internal thoughts, feelings and actions, rather than the thoughts, feelings and actions of others. Individuals typically strive to express themselves and differentiate themselves from others. In contrast, people in Eastern cultures (such as Chinese or Japanese cultures) hold an interdependent perspective of the self, in which peoples' main motivation is usually to find a way to fit themselves in with relevant others and society as a whole. Individuals in such Eastern cultures are members of a hierarchical community in which their behaviour must be subordinated to the needs of the larger society. Consequently, Eastern societies tend to encourage more conformity which results in more streamlined and less diverse creative output. In contrast, societies in Western cultures tend to foster more individual freedom and expression of individuality, leading to more creative expressions.

Further differences between Eastern and Western creativity and peoples' approaches to challenges can be found. Westerners often deconstruct complex problems while Easterners seem to prefer a more holistic view (e.g., Westwood & Low, 2003). Westerners tend to integrate certain humour and focus on aesthetic appreciation in their creative outputs, whereas Easterners more often tend to integrate a moral view and a connection of new and old (Niu & Sternberg, 2006).

Research Field

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical Background
  5. Research Field
  6. Method
  7. Findings
  8. Differences between English- and Chinese-Speaking Communities
  9. Discussion
  10. Implication and Outlook
  11. References

Online communities dedicated to basketball footwear were selected as the research field for this study. Basketball communities seemed to be appropriate for several reasons. First, user innovation frequently occurs in the field of sports. Second, in order to investigate cultural differences it was considered necessary to focus on an activity which is not only limited to one country or culture. Basketball fits this requirement as it is popular all over the world. Consequently, a high number of basketball-related online communities with a variety of cultural backgrounds were expected. English- and Chinese-speaking communities were explored in this study. Among others, Niu and Sternberg (2001, 2003) point out that individuals in these two societies have quite distinct worldviews and consequently expressions of creativity.

The authors were aware that the findings in the field of two rather opposite cultures could only provide first insights and that further research would be needed to investigate also other, less diverse cultures. Further, by concentrating on basketball communities, the findings may not hold true for other non-sports and non-leisure contexts. However, these limitations were accepted as the study was considered to be exploratory in nature and aimed to gather first deep insights into the fields of interest.

Method

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical Background
  5. Research Field
  6. Method
  7. Findings
  8. Differences between English- and Chinese-Speaking Communities
  9. Discussion
  10. Implication and Outlook
  11. References

A netnographic approach (Kozinets, 1999, 2002) was chosen for data collection. Netnography is a qualitative research method which has its origin in ethnography (Arnould & Wallendorf, 1994). While before the emergence of the Internet it was necessary for ethnographers to participate in a group, nowadays netnography enables the analysis of consumer interactions without active participation. Netnography uses information publicly available on the Internet to unobtrusively study the nature and behaviour of online consumer groups (Muniz & Schau, 2005; Nelson, 2005), that is, to gain ‘grounded knowledge’ (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) concerning a certain research question. The analysis takes place in the natural context of the community and as it is conducted without direct researcher participation it is free from bias which may arise through experimental research settings.

Various search engines such as Google were used to identify online basketball communities. In total, more than 800 English- and Chinese-speaking communities dedicated to basketball-related topics were found on the Internet. To reduce the number of communities to a manageable level, a variety of selection criteria such as community size, posting frequency, and quality of content were applied. Finally, ten message boards, five English-speaking and five Chinese-speaking message boards, were selected as most relevant for this study. From the openly accessible user profiles a quite good picture of the members' origin could be gathered. Members of Chinese-speaking communities are not surprisingly almost entirely Chinese. As English is a global language, English-speaking communities were found to attract an international audience. However, it also became clear that the majority of members are from the United States and the number of members from other countries is much smaller. A brief description of all communities in the research sample is given in Table 1.

Table 1. Online Communities in the Research Sample
(a) English-speaking Online Communities
Community nameDescription
Niketalk○ 30,000 members
○ best community based on content and number of members
○ no official affiliation with Nike, Inc.
Basketball-boards○ 11,000 members
○ members are of younger age
○ one forum specifically for apparel
Instyleshoes○ 6,200 members
○ often mentioned as second best online community
○ all brands are frequently discussed
Kickz101○ 3,300 members
○ message board of a basketball apparel store
○ rapidly gaining in importance
Kicksology○ number of members not available
○ private site with reviews of more than 150 basketball shoes
○ reviews have a strong influence on users' purchase decisions
(b) Chinese-speaking Online Communities
Community nameDescription
Chinese Streetball○ 166,200 members
○ former software website, changed to basketball in 2002
○ 1,200 discussions per day
Good Shoes○ 81,100 members
○ entirely dedicated to basketball shoes
○ members are relatively young
Xinxin Sport Shoes○ 52,000 members
○ best Chinese Community based on quality of content
○ fastest growing Chinese-speaking community
Chedan○ 21,200 members
○ 1,000 discussions per day
○ besides basketball also other activities are discussed
Wild Donkey○ 10,100 members
○ first Chinese community specialized in basketball footwear
○ many older loyal members

All ten communities were observed over a period of six months. During this period, two researchers, one of them a Chinese native speaker, read more than 240,000 statements in more than 18,000 discussions related to innovation. Similar to ‘purposive sampling’ in ethnography (Wallendorf & Belk, 1989), the researchers saved all content that seemed of particular interest in the light of the research objectives electronically. In addition, they collected more than 50 pages of field notes with regard to interesting observations. Besides this ‘hard’ data the researchers over time also acquired a profound feeling for the routines and dynamics within the ten communities. Similar to offline ethnography, spending several hours per day within the group (although not actively contributing) enabled them to immerse themselves into the intangibles of the community. All data was then imported into the NVivo software, a proven software tool for qualitative data analysis (Paccagnella, 1997).

Data coding was conducted individually by the two researchers. In the coding process, each community statement or discussion which addressed a relevant topic was assigned to so-called ‘categories’. Each category covered a different aspect which was considered as interesting in the light of the research questions. Categories were derived from the literature (Maxwell, 2008) as well as inductively developed from the data (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). In addition, inter-rater reliability was facilitated by continually negotiating the meanings of the categories. In total, more than 40 categories were derived, including aspects related to the product field itself (e.g., basketball shoes' cushioning, ankle support, lacing), community dynamics (e.g., members' reaction to divergent opinions, introduction of new members), members' motives (e.g., motives to join community, motives to share ideas), cultural considerations (e.g., references to own heritage, cultural clues in innovations), or innovation patterns (e.g., joint refinement of posted ideas, internal design challenges). Many of the categories in the end comprised several hundred member statements, whereby the term ‘statement’ should not be understood as one or two sentences. Rather, statements often consisted of several written paragraphs and not uncommonly spanned up to one A4 page. For instance, 216 statements were analysed as they provided deep insights into so-called ‘Designer's Roll Calls’, an innovation pattern which will be outlined in a later part. Overall, qualitative analysis covered more than 11,000 lengthy member statements.

To ensure the validity of findings, the insights were triangulated and challenged with other data. Secondary data included, among others, related publications and reports found on the Internet. In addition, interviews with four managers of a leading sporting goods brand were conducted. The company representatives all shared a long tenure in the sports field but had quite different backgrounds. They included the global head of the basketball unit, the global head of the innovation team, as well as two product designers. Each of the interviews lasted between 45 and 60 minutes and was conducted by means of a semi-structured interview guideline. One central part of the interviews was that the company representatives were shown a selection of community innovations. They were then asked to evaluate the ideas along certain criteria, such as novelty or feasibility. While the designers and the innovation managers were able to evaluate the community output in terms of visual and technical novelty, the leader of the basketball unit was able to share insights whether there would also be a market for certain ideas given their realization.

Findings

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical Background
  5. Research Field
  6. Method
  7. Findings
  8. Differences between English- and Chinese-Speaking Communities
  9. Discussion
  10. Implication and Outlook
  11. References

Community Structure and Members

From analysing the openly accessible list of members it can be said that the majority of members in the selected basketball communities are between 15 and 25 years old. Naturally most of them go to school or university. For the core members, basketball shoes are more than just a part of their clothing. They are a form of self-expression and a ‘way of life’. The members' intense involvement with basketball footwear is shown among others by the fact that they often possess numerous pairs of basketball shoes; in some cases up to 100 different pairs.

Although the observed communities exist only in virtual space, they show several characteristics known from social groups in the offline world, such as leadership, identity, sense of order, cohesiveness and mutually respected norms. In each of the observed communities a majority of members can be considered as so-called ‘lurkers’, that is, members which mainly follow the virtual discourse but scarcely make any contribute of their own (Nonnecke, Preece & Andrews, 2004). However, in each community also a small group (approximately 1%) of highly active and broadly respected members exists. It is the small number of individuals with the longest tenure and highest recognition in the community which typically also takes a leadership role. For instance, one community member points out the special standing of two core-members:

I have been here since 2001. I don't really post I tend to just observe, but what I noticed is that whenever [the members] ekin or airmax put up a post everyone magically does not ever affront him, says the shoes suck . . . like he or she is a god or something.

Besides participating in the discussions like regular members, these community leaders ensure the effectiveness and maintenance of the entire community. For instance, they have the right to exclude members from the community when they repeatedly disregard the ‘rules of conduct’. These written guidelines constitute the overall mission of the community and its values, such as open-mindedness towards others' opinions and independence from commercial companies. Besides the community ‘netiquette’, also other norms can be observed. For instance, new members are typically reminded in a very friendly yet determined way to browse the community archives before asking questions that were already answered in the past. Apparently, each community also has its own identity and tries to differentiate itself from other platforms. For instance, members commonly refer to ‘our community’, ‘how we do it’ and also develop their own logos that represent their virtual group. The cohesiveness between members is also shown in the generally friendly and supportive atmosphere as well as by the fact that from time to time members also arrange offline meetings to get to know each other away from the Internet.

Community Innovation Activities

In all ten communities, members develop innovative ideas for new or improved products. Approximately 10–15% of all members regularly participate in innovation activities in one way or another. For them, engaging in creative activities related to their preferred product field is one of the main reasons for joining the community. As many members use their basketball footwear not only during sports but also in a casual context, they frequently experience certain shortcomings of existing sneakers. This perception of unmet needs, combined with the enjoyment derived from thinking about future products, often triggers innovation activities. Although innovations often address the visual appearance of basketball shoes, they are far from limited to this aspect. From extensively wearing different models and analysing the basketball shoes in their collections, members have a detailed feeling of what works with regard to certain features and what does not. This knowledge is used to develop entirely new technologies and basketball shoes from scratch. There are numerous innovative ideas for almost any shoe component, such as design, cushioning, lacing and ventilation. In total, we identified 24 components and attributes of a shoe for which community members make specific contributions, create modifications, and come up with new ideas.

Community innovators are either motivated by the perception of a currently unsatisfied need or by the inner satisfaction they derive from engaging in the creative activity itself. Approximately 80% of the ideas posted in the sample are triggered by members in search of excitement. These innovators develop and pursue new ideas because of the fun, pleasure and enjoyment they derive from the creative activity itself rather than to achieve a desired outcome (e.g., protection from injury). The fact that innovators are intrinsically motivated and do not seek monetary rewards also explains why they freely share their ideas in the community, despite the awareness that companies also closely monitor their discussions.

Members driven by excitement regularly and consciously engage in innovation activities. They contribute highly sophisticated ideas, which are usually translated into virtual prototypes in the form of drawings or even 3-D renderings. The level of creativity and skills displayed is typically impressive (see Figure 1). For the most active innovators, making their own renderings is more than just a hobby, it is their intended career. They dream of becoming professional basketball footwear designers for one of the major brands. In order to achieve this goal, many study industrial design or go to art schools.

image

Figure 1. Shoe Designs Based on iPod Nano Design Competition

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Interestingly, while most innovators pay less attention to whether their ideas would be producible or not, a small number of members also repeatedly refer to the economic aspect. They challenge the innovators by pointing out that the real difficulty is to come up with innovations that impress in terms of creativity and look, but also pay attention to costs and producibility.

The high quality of ideas and designs posted in the community was also confirmed in the interviews with the managers working in the sporting goods industry. The company representatives all acknowledged the high creativity of posted designs. They agreed that the designs are not only slight variations of products already on the market but also incorporate several new thoughts, e.g. in terms of shapes, materials or colour combinations. With regard to the technical innovations they pointed out that most solutions posted in the community are rather basic and may not be ready for realization right away.

The Innovation Process

Innovation in the observed basketball communities is typically no straightforward process, in which one member posts the final solution. Rather innovations emerge from a joint process in which various members with different backgrounds and skills contribute in one form or another.

As outlined earlier, the innovation process is often triggered by a perceived shortcoming of an already existing product or just by a member's desire to engage in a creative activity. Once an innovator has transferred his ideas into a design, it is shared freely within the community. Typically, reactions to the posted designs follow immediately, e.g. in the form of praise, suggestions for improvements or additional questions. The feedback is generally appreciated as it motivates and challenges the innovator to come up with improved ideas:

Thanks man, that really helps and motivates me. I will keep it up. I'm trying to develop a ‘fast, swift’ look, but it's hard without having a pointy toe I guess. I'll work on it. I'll try to put more up soon.

In the innovation process, members take different roles depending on their skills and backgrounds. Those members who are creative and skilled enough to translate their ideas into visualizations are at the core of innovation activities. Members who repeatedly showcase creative designs are awarded for their efforts and contributions with a certain degree of prestige and status within the community. However, also other, less talented members who do not possess the skills to come up with designs on their own provide value. Drawing from their basketball-related knowledge they give detailed feedback on what is good or bad with regard to a posted idea and suggest additional ideas for improvements. Because of their different backgrounds, knowledge, experiences, values, skills, needs and fields of interest, they expose the innovators to a variety of problems and alternative solutions. Typically, this input inspires the development of advanced versions of the initial idea.

Another group of less skilled members takes on the role of fans (cf. McAlexander, Schouten & Koenig, 2002). They express their admiration for innovators and provide recognition as well as words of motivation. The interplay of constructive feedback and admiration, combined with the innovators' desire to push their own limits, typically leads to revised versions which are posted in the community. For instance, one member humorously answers the feedback he got from the community on one of his ideas:

I think I will be redoing mine tonight, as it is tough for me to accept this much of an ass kickin'!

Through the intense interaction of members, different perspectives, values and other intangibles that flow in, and repeated loops of trial and error, in the end designs emerge that are superior to those developed by a single user.

Differences between English- and Chinese-Speaking Communities

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical Background
  5. Research Field
  6. Method
  7. Findings
  8. Differences between English- and Chinese-Speaking Communities
  9. Discussion
  10. Implication and Outlook
  11. References

Structural Differences

While all of the observed communities are similar in that they have a small group of members who take on a leadership role, differences exist between English- and Chinese-speaking communities with regard to how a certain standing in the community is reached. In English-speaking communities, individuals gain recognition within the group through ongoing high quality contributions (e.g., postings that demonstrate deep product-related knowledge). In contrast, the standing of a certain member in Chinese-speaking communities is more related to the number of contributions. For instance, members have to pass more than 15 different stages depending on how many postings they make before they become assigned the title of ‘god members’. Also, a member's title is not only reached by means of a predefined process but also the community's infrastructure supports its announcement. Whenever a member posts a message in the community, the title is displayed right below the user name openly visible to all other members. In other words, in comparison to English-speaking communities, Chinese-speaking communities tend to favour quantity over quality of contributions in order to gain status and recognition.

Innovation Motives and Output

A major difference between Chinese- and English-speaking communities exists with regard to innovation motives and as a consequence the resulting ideas. Numerous statements indicate that besides the fun of the creative activity itself, members of Chinese-speaking online communities are also strongly driven and influenced by pride for their country and their origin. For them, one motive for innovating and sharing designs is their desire to support national footwear brands and to protest against the dominance of Western sporting goods companies and supporting Chinese society (cf. Niu & Sternberg, 2001).

Shoes are not bad. We could not let NIKE and Adidas occupy all our market. China must have own brand, have to buy it! support national products.

In order to demonstrate their pride for their country and culture, innovators in Chinese-speaking communities often incorporate cultural aspects such as Chinese symbols or figures into their creative designs. For instance, one innovator's design is based on the colour and symbolism of the Chinese opera mask, which can be seen from the top of the shoe. Another design incorporates the large Chinese character ‘Ming’ on the side of the shoe and is almost entirely coloured in red, the colour associated with luck in Chinese culture (see Figure 2).

image

Figure 2. Basketball Shoe Designs with Integrated Chinese Symbols

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By contrast, although some members of English-speaking online communities also integrate cues of their origin into their designs (e.g., the Stars and Stripes flag), their reasons for doing so are quite different. For them, such national symbols and figures are more a form of expressing their creativity and coming up with interesting and creative designs. In this sense, cultural symbols have a style and aesthetic purpose rather than to communicate a deeper meaning with regard to origin and culture. This can be seen, for example, by the fact that English-speaking innovators typically do not explain in detail why they chose to integrate national symbols.

Another difference between communities exists with regard to the focus of creative activities. Innovators in Chinese-speaking communities typically address a basketball shoe as whole; most of all its visual appearance and in some cases even its package (see Figure 2). In contrast, in English-speaking communities innovators from time to time pick one specific element of basketball footwear and then try to come up with creative solutions particularly for this aspect (e.g., lacing, cushioning). In other words, while Chinese-speaking communities have a rather holistic approach in their innovation activities, English-speaking communities also break down basketball shoes and innovate with regard to specific technical elements (cf. Westwood & Low, 2003).

Process of Innovation

Another difference between English- and Chinese-speaking communities can be found in their innovation patterns. While the process of mutual feedback and support among members is similar in both cultures, they differ in that innovation creation in Chinese-speaking communities seems to be less organized and less competitive. While innovations in Chinese-speaking communities appear rather randomly, in English-speaking communities numerous ideas emerge in a structured process. For instance, to increase the challenge and fun when making renderings, innovators of English-speaking online communities from time to time initiate so-called ‘Designer's Roll Calls’. In these friendly competitions a community member assigns a specific innovation task, for example ‘design the basketball shoe for the year 2050’, and then the creative members of the community try to fulfil this task. When doing so they have to work within certain constraints, such as a given deadline or detailed specifications which need to be fulfilled (e.g., the design has to have a cover which hides the laces). However, the competitive character in such contests is mainly of a friendly and playful nature and stimulates the fun factor of the creative act. Typically, innovations resulting from such internal competitions are even more creative and elaborate than ideas and designs which are not elaborated in the context of internal contests. The following statement illustrates the astonishment of one member as a reaction to the high-quality submissions:

Whoa . . . I really think that ALL the submissions from you guys are incredible! wow!! there ain't never gonna be a shortage of creative talent in here.

In contrast, for Chinese-speaking basketball communities no such patterns of self-stated design and innovation competitions could be found.

Discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical Background
  5. Research Field
  6. Method
  7. Findings
  8. Differences between English- and Chinese-Speaking Communities
  9. Discussion
  10. Implication and Outlook
  11. References

In this study English- and Chinese-speaking online communities dedicated to basketball footwear were investigated. Although the observed communities exist in virtual space, they show the same characteristics that constitute social groups in the offline world. In each community a small group of members takes a central leadership role. The standing of this core group of members as well as the continuance of the entire community is ensured on an informal level by community norms and on a formal level by written community guidelines. Although members of the observed communities can participate anonymously and in most cases have never met in real life, they show high cohesiveness and identification with their virtual peers.

Members of both English- and Chinese-speaking online basketball communities develop creative output of impressive quality and quantity. Community members not only come up with innovative ideas for new products, but also use their creativity to modify or individualize existing footwear. In this regard, their creativity is a form of self-expression and social communication (Holt, 1997; Burroughs & Mick, 2004).

In an offline context, it is known that creative solutions often emerge from an iterative process in which initial ideas are subject to repeated loops of ‘trial and error’. In addition to an individual's own qualification, creative solutions are also stimulated by environmental factors, such as encouragement, open-mindedness, support, clear goals, constructive challenging of ideas or group heterogeneity. The findings of this paper indicate that innovations in online groups resemble creative processes observed in the offline world. Innovation in basketball communities is typically no straightforward process in which the final solution is posted by one individual. Rather ideas emerge from an iterative process of repeated revision and improvement of initial suggestions. Along the way individuals with different skills and backgrounds all contribute in one way or another. While those members who are creative on their own share suggestions for improvements or use the ideas as inspiration for their own endeavours, less talented members also contribute. They take the role of fans and thereby provide encouragement and support. Being confronted with additional expertise on one side and words of motivation on the other side, fuels the innovator to come up with even better revisions of the initially posted idea. In the end, new products emerge that are superior to those that would have been innovated by a single user and superior to the sum of the individual outputs (Sawhney & Prandelli, 2000). Also with regard to their position in the community, members who rarely contribute ideas but predominately provide comments stand out. They are the ones who have the highest number of ties and thus can be considered as nodes in the community network. In contrast, designers who mainly share ideas show rather loose and only limited links to other members. The observation that different groups of individuals show different levels of interconnectedness is also in line with existing research on online groups (Hutter et al., 2011).

The joint process also illustrates, that for members participation in innovation activities is considered as fun, a rewarding activity in itself, and as a possibility to show off and improve their knowledge and skills. In this regard they differ from lead users who innovate mainly because they derive benefits from the solutions themselves (von Hippel, 1986).

In line with research which suggests that in an offline context culture has an impact on creativity and innovation, the findings indicate that also in virtual space such a relationship exists. English- and Chinese-speaking basketball communities differ with regard to their structural dimensions, the way innovations are developed, the innovative output, as well as members' underlying motives. While in English-speaking communities the status of a certain member is dependent mainly on the quality of contributions made, Chinese-speaking communities put more emphasis on the quantitative aspect of contributions – a more objective and less competitive approach (cf. Csikszentmihalyi, 1988). Similarly, the creative process is less organized and less competitive in Chinese-speaking communities compared to their English-speaking counterparts. For instance, the pattern of self-stated internal design and innovation contests was found only in English-speaking communities. Such contests focus members' creativity on one topic and add a competitive dimension to joint innovation. Similar to findings from the offline world, the clearly articulated goals and challenge stimulate creativity and in the end lead to even better ideas. In addition, design competitions add a playful component to innovation. They can be interpreted as a kind of game with self-defined roles. Regarding the effect of play on creative output, Csikszentmihalyi (1975) notes: ‘Philosophers from Plato to Sartre have remarked that people are most human, whole, free and creative when they play’.

While fun and enjoyment are main drivers for both English- and Chinese-speaking communities, for members of Chinese-speaking communities the pride for their country and the protest against Western sporting goods companies are important as well (cf. Niu & Sternberg, 2003). Their pride in their own heritage and local brands is expressed in various statements as well as national symbols and figures which are incorporated into designs – a pattern found less often in English-speaking communities. Also, with regard to the innovative output communities from the East display a more holistic approach (Westwood & Low, 2003). Innovations rather address basketball shoes as a whole while members of English-speaking communities also break down the product to certain components, such as lacing or cushioning, and work on these features.

Differences between English- and Chinese-speaking communities can be interpreted in the light of worldview theory (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988; Niu & Sternberg, 2003). According to Niu and Sternberg (2001, 2003), individuals in Western societies hold an independent perspective of the self and typically strive to differentiate themselves from others. In contrast, people in Eastern cultures are marked by an interdependent perspective; they try to fit into the larger group and rather strive for conformity. This is in line with the finding that English-speaking basketball communities are more competitive than their Chinese-speaking counterparts. For instance, self-stated design contests help the innovators to stand out from the crowd and differentiate themselves from others. Typically such contests are the focus of the entire community and submissions receive even more attention than innovations which are posted ‘regularly’. Also, in the end a winner is announced. From this perspective, one reason why members of Chinese-speaking communities do not initiate contests could be that it is against their worldview which naturally strives for interdependence and conformity rather than independence and standing out.

Implication and Outlook

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical Background
  5. Research Field
  6. Method
  7. Findings
  8. Differences between English- and Chinese-Speaking Communities
  9. Discussion
  10. Implication and Outlook
  11. References

From a practical perspective, the findings of this study imply that companies which aim to collaborate with communities across cultures have to be aware of members' different motives and routines. They have to align the applied integration and collaboration tools with the cultural backgrounds of the people they want to interact with. For instance, while in the collaboration with Western communities one incentive could be to honour the most creative members, this kind of attention and standing out could be discomforting and daunting for members of Eastern communities. Also, in the light of the national pride of Eastern communities and their strong support for local manufacturers, companies from the West may carefully evaluate if and how they want to approach Eastern communities. Further, companies have to keep in mind that what communities consider as creative and innovative likely depends on culture.

While this study provides first insights that culture does have an influence on innovation in online communities, further research is required for more generalizable and quantifiable results. For instance, it would be interesting to analyse communities with less diverse cultures. Also an exploration of communities dedicated to non-leisure, non-sports consumer goods would be of interest. While our study has found many similarities between the cultural impact on creativity in online and offline contexts, it would be interesting to identify further differences between the impact of culture in online and offline contexts. Finally, while this study interprets differences between cultures in the light of worldview theory, other possible explanations may be explored as well. We hope that our work stimulates further researchers on innovation in virtual consumer groups and in particular the cultural impact.

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  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical Background
  5. Research Field
  6. Method
  7. Findings
  8. Differences between English- and Chinese-Speaking Communities
  9. Discussion
  10. Implication and Outlook
  11. References
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Gregor Jawecki (gregor.jawecki@hyve.de) is a project manager for the company HYVE AG, where he has specialized in the integration of innovative online communities into new product development. He holds a degree in business administration from Innsbruck University School of Management. His research focus lies in the analysis of innovative consumer behaviour in online communities as well as the tools available for companies to benefit from creative online consumer groups.

Johann Füller (johann.fueller@hyve.de) is CEO of HYVE AG, an innovation and community company, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Innsbruck University School of Management, and Research Affiliate at the MIT Sloan School of Management. In line with his research focus, he regularly gives guest lectures about open innovation, the utilization of online communities and virtual integration of customers in new product development. Johann has published more than 60 articles in journals such as Journal of Product Innovation Management, Journal of Business Research, Journal of Travel Research, Harvard Business Manager, and Technovation. As CEO of HYVE AG, Johann consults top corporations on the development of customer focused innovations.

Johannes Gebauer (johannes.gebauer@hyve.de) is a project manager for the innovation company HYVE AG. He holds a degree in international economics from Innsbruck University School of Management, where he is also a PhD candidate. His research interests include consumer innovation in online communities, public and intra-corporate innovation communities, as well as tools and methods for virtual customer integration.