All you need to know about successful product development, collaboration and knowledge management was written in 1987

A fascinating 1987 study (pdf) illustrates how the design firm IDEO carries out its product development. Here's the big takeaways, per authors Andrew Hargadon and Robert I. Sutton:  

The firm exploits its network position to gain knowledge of existing technological solutions in some industries that may be potentially valuable in others, but are rare or unknown. It acts as a technology broker by introducing these solutions to industries where they are not known, and, in the process, creates new products that are original combinations of existing knowledge from disparate industries. The organization's link to many industries provide its designers with access to a broader range of technological solutions than they would see working in a single industry. Designers acquire and store such solutions in the organizations memory. Then, by making analogies between new design problems and old solutions they have seen before, they retrieve such knowledge to generate new solutions to design problems in other industries.

Here are my takeaways (some of which overlap with the authors): 

  1. The firm positions itself amongst multiple industries and bridges knowledge and technology gaps to tie these fields together, not matter how unconnected they seem. 
  2. Designers learn the industry they are working with through reading trade journals and interviews, creating an understanding of industry jargon, products and the clients' competitors. 
  3. Designers themselves work in a variety of fields, allowing them to cross-pollinate ideas of what worked in one field (say, vacuum cleaners) to a different field (computer peripherals). They call this building analogies: The secret to building a new hinge for a computer monitor may be found in the small hinge on a children's toy. 
  4. Recreating past designs does not build better products. Using past ideas in new ways helps bring better products.  
  5. Because the company stores so much of its past knowledge and information, it is pertinent to create effective methods to retrieve this information. 
  6. Some written records of past projects exist, but much of the information is stored by individuals' memory. Thus, company culture calls for open collaboration, with designers expected to ask for help or seek advice when they don't know something. On the other hand, designers who offer advice and help are generally rewarded more (social capital is tied to salary structure).  
  7. Some designers become "known" for their expertise and find themselves answering questions about details in the field.