In our networked economies, taking an open approach has become key to maintaining a competitive advantage. The success of a company relies on having collaborative and fluid relationships with their partners, customers and even competitors. Whether it’s through open data, open source, open innovation, or a combination of them all, taking an open approach enables that collaboration.

In early 2015 we published ‘Open data means business’, a report that highlighted 270 companies across the UK that used, produced or invested in open data – data that anyone can access, use and share. It showed that open data is being used to create innovative products and services in a number of different sectors, adding to the growing body of evidence that demonstrates the economic impact of open data.

Interestingly, the study demonstrated that the companies making use of open data are not all trendy startups. Nearly 10% of the open data companies we identified had 251 or more employees. We wanted to investigate how and why these organisations were working with open data. Detailed case studies of three big businesses – Thomson Reuters, Arup and Syngenta – form the majority of this report.

Embracing open innovation: what’s in it for big businesses?

It comes as no surprise that big businesses take advantage of open data from government and elsewhere. For commercial organisations, using open data provides additional insight at limited cost. Whether it’s to help choose where to put a new store, or to create an analytical product for customers, there are clear advantages for businesses to use whatever data they can find. There are clear parallels between the increasing use of open data and the growing adoption of open source software. Both provide a cost-effective and increasingly trusted alternative to proprietary sources.

But nearly all businesses have treated the data they generate themselves as an asset to be closely guarded and released only to those prepared to pay for it, if at all. In some cases this careful handling is justified: for example, the sharing of personal data is limited by law. It’s only now that some of the UK’s market-leading enterprises are releasing their own open data. These companies have found that making some of their valuable data assets available – not just at no cost, but with permissive licences that allow the data to be accessed, used and shared by anyone – can reduce friction in trade with others, increase their market reach and build commercial resilience in the long-term.

Open data is just one strand of a more open approach to innovation. As they seek to gain a competitive advantage, big businesses are trying to be faster-moving, more adaptive and more disruptive. They have adopted a more open approach to external ideas and technologies as well. They are becoming porous organisations.

By examining the actions and motivations of Thomson Reuters, Arup and Syngenta we have found these three large businesses are seeking competitive advantage in a changing environment through strategically adopting an open approach. Some make use of open data, some publish it, but for each it forms a significant part of their open approaches to innovation.