David Eaves' OSCON keynote encourages open source communities to apply negotiation theory among contributors

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David Eaves (read his opensource.com posts) is an open government and open data expert with a background in negotiation theory. In his OSCON 2012 keynote today, Eaves described how the broad open source community has spent a lot of time wrestling with the art of community management and told attendees how he believes negotiation theory could be applied to improve those communities.

"Social capital is our capital," he said. While companies generally have financial or intellectual capital, open source communities depend mostly on social capital--in other words, the people who make the project an interesting place to be and a good project to contribute to.

Open source communities describe the way they function as meritocratic, which gets people involved based on their desire to code and their skills to do so well."But when I look at projects that have done really well," Eaves said, "it's because of people who are really good at social skills." Communities seldom explain that aspect up front nor encourage the non-coding social participation from the beginning.

He describes the four traits exhibited by a good community as the ability to inquire, paraphrase, acknowledge, and advocate. But he observes that far too often, our communities only advocate. Further, people who got involved in a project to code who also happen to have the soft skills end up spending more and more time on community management.

"If you're good, engaging, and compelling," Eaves said, "it's not long before you're spending a lot less time coding and more time working on managing a community," from just getting people to get along to negotiating larger problems. Eventually it starts to feel to those coders like they're spending most of their time dealing with people and very little time doing "real work."

"We can bring science to this art. There's a code to thinking about how we collaborate," he said. Eaves advocates embedding negotiation theory into open source communities. For example, do we model ideal behavior in bug submission? What if we asked more questions, like what the user was trying to do (and why) when he encountered the problem? Maybe it wasn't an error; maybe it was actually a support issue or unintended approach.

He sees a significant impact (and even greater potential impact) from tools that communities don't specifically use for their impact on their social sides--tools like Github and the metrics tools that Mozilla has embraced. "One of the things that strikes me as so interesting is that there's an enormous amount of data about how communities work, but it's locked up in interfaces like Bugzilla," he said. These tools introduce some art into the science by giving us a lot of really useful information about the interactions in a community.

What if you were paying a lot more attention to not just the hard data, like what's been submitted, but who has been doing it? Maybe you'll notice a person who has usually been a regular contributor but suddenly hasn't submitted a patch in two months. That gives you an opportunity to reach out and find out what happened. You're likely to find either that something intervened--life changes, job changes--something that has just changed the person's ability to participate. or maybe you'll find that the person intentionally left your project. That's the opportunity to find out why and to do something about it.

You can also use this data to set expectations, which in turn reduces community frustration. Imagine that when a contributor makes a submission, it came with a graph showing how long on average it takes for code to be reviewed. With expectations known, you'll have a lot less ire from a simple misconception about how the community usually operates.

"The best code will not always win. Community management is a core competency to making open source effective," Eaves concluded.

If you're interested more in Eaves' ideas on open source community management, he offered links on his blog this morning to his writings on the subject.

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