I’ve just read an incredibly depressing Fast Company piece on InnoCentive and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The story reports on a recent blog posting by Dwayne Spradlin, President and Chief Executive Officer of InnoCentive.

If you’re not familiar with InnoCentive, here is a thumbnail sketch:  It is a global, online marketplace where organizations in need of innovation–companies, academic institutions, public sector, and non-profit organizations–can utilize a global network of more than 200,000 of the world’s brightest problem solvers.  The company began as a start-up incubated by Eli Lilly. InnoCentive is now incorporated as an independent company, partnering with many different “seekers” in a variety of industries to revolutionize R&D practices. Seeker organizations post “challenges” on InnoCentive.com along with an appropriate award. “Solvers” submit solutions to the challenge. The seeker pays an award to the solver who best meets the solution requirements as outlined in the Challenge.

In Wikinomics, Anthony Williams and I cited InnoCentive as a brilliant example of crowd sourcing.  Smart companies understand that they cannot have all of the best and brightest thinkers on their payroll. An office equipment manufacturer or a camera manufacturer simply couldn’t afford the world’s best designers on a full-time basis. So these companies reach out to collaborate with companies such as Porsche to acquire their insights. Courtesy of the Internet, almost anyone can participate in this process.

Consider our story about the sea change in Procter and Gamble’s culture. About nine years ago P&G was struggling, and its market value had collapsed. Its new CEO, A.G. Lafley, realized that if P&G was going to grow at seven percent, it had to create a $5 billion business annually. It had to be an innovation engine. At the time there were 7,000 researchers employed by P&G. But it occurred to Lafley that there were hundreds of thousands of bright researchers that weren’t on the P&G payroll. So if P&G is looking for a molecule that will take red wine off a shirt, its R&D department goes to idea marketplaces such as InnoCentive.  P&G has developed deep expertise in Wikinomics. Now rather than the NIH syndrome—Not Invented Here—the company has evolved to PFE—Proudly Found Elsewhere.

The relevance of InnoCentive the Gulf oil spill crisis is obvious.  BP has a problem it clearly doesn’t know how to solve, and InnoCentive brings together hundreds of thousands of bright people who love to solve problems.  InnoCentive posted the oil spill challenge on April 30 and was inundated more than 900 suggestions.  There was no cash reward involved; all ideas were offered free of charge.  After weeks of ignoring the initiative, on June 5th BP contacted InnoCentive with a “positive tone and apparent eagerness to work together,” says CEO Spradlin.

But now BP says it is not interested in the InnoCentive ideas. The company says “the agreements BP would have to enter into with InnoCentive are too complex and burdensome to add to already overstretched workdays.”   As Spradlin notes on his blog, “These agreements are simple, allow us to use BP’s name without InnoCentive taking on liability, and set the price of engagement at $0.  Overstretched workdays?  Really? My faith in BP was already stretched, now it is gone.  The teams at BP lack an urgency to involve the outside world.”

I find BP’s attitude unconscionable. If BP lacks the resources to vet the many ideas InnoCentive could send its way, then it should reach out to its competitors for added help.  This spill is beyond BP’s issue; it is a crisis that should draw on the resources of the entire industry.  Companies such as Shell and Exxon should make available their top engineers to help vet the suggestions from InnoCentive and other people and companies wanting to help. The Save the Gulf initiative by nGenera illustrates the correct belief that good ideas can come from anywhere. We can’t afford BP to try to do this alone.

Don Tapscott