Three signs your corporate culture isn't ready for the open source way

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Is Occupy Wall St. really an "open source protest?"

It's a good bet that the next generation of defining companies will have corporate cultures built the open source way-- around openness and collaboration, while fostering community and culture that extend outside the company walls.

In fact many of the defining companies of the first decade of this century show these characteristics (with one very notable exception we discussed earlier).

It kind of makes you want to rush in and see if you can change your old style corporate culture and get in on the action. But try to change too fast and your efforts may backfire.

So here are three signs that your corporate culture may not quite be ready for the open source way-- and some tips to help you move closer.

Sign #1: My company defaults to closed rather than open.

Are decisions in your company made in the open? Or behind closed doors? When a decision is made, is the reasoning behind the decision communicated clearly and openly throughout the company?

How about the physical work space? Does everyone have their own office? And if so, are the doors usually closed? If decisions, strategy, and doors are closed, you work for a company that defaults to closed rather than open (More on the concept in this post).

To move your culture from closed to open, start by being more open yourself. Try “showing your math” more often when you are explaining decisions so folks understand how you got to them. Start sharing everything you know, see if others reciprocate. Leave your office door open-- or get rid of the office altogether. Eventually you may notice that your default state has switched to open, and hopefully others in the organization will follow suit.

Sign #2: My leadership is not bought into the idea of an open culture.

An open cultural initiative will fail if the senior executive in your firm isn’t leading the effort. Period. Full stop.

Ask yourself: have you done a good job selling the value proposition of a more open culture in a language an executive can understand? Meaning, how will it make your firm more profitable, more productive, more innovative. Show examples of other companies seeing success with open cultural efforts (you'll find many of them in the "What We're Reading" column on the right side of this page). Does your executive speaks in numbers and data? Show him/her numbers and data.

If you make a good case and get interest, begin to test some small cultural initiatives. If they fail, learn from your mistakes, and try again quickly. When doing things the open source way, failing small and fast is good-- many small failures often lead to the biggest successes. Once you have some small successes under your belt, go a little bigger, and keep the executive engaged along the way.

Sign #3: My company has few windows and doors into the outside world.

A truly open corporate culture doesn’t stop inside the company, but extends to the community of customers, partners, and others that care about it.

Can those audiences see in? Can they collaborate openly with you? Innovation housed fully within your corporate walls isn't optimized for the 21st century connected world (read what Jim Whitehurst has to say about it here).

Companies that can effectively communicate and collaborate with the outside world have a huge competitive advantage. Authentic dialog and community engagement are key concepts that the most successful brands are beginning to master.

Start by asking yourself this simple question: Are we talking at or talking with? Look at your website. Look at your communications, marketing, product development, and service efforts. Are customers and partners contributing effort, ideas, and feedback, or are they silent?

If you find that most of your communications are "talking at" only, find a place to test whether you can establish authentic dialog with the outside world. Fortunately, all these awesome social media tools make it easy to try something small, even if it is just opening a Twitter account or a company blog. And if you want to move beyond open dialog and into open innovation, do some background reading-- here is a good place to start.

So do the three statements above describe your company? If so, don't despair. As my favorite fortune cookie fortune said "All is not yet lost."

Companies fighting the trend toward more open cultures are fighting the weather. Some may take longer to discover the benefits than others. But by starting small, staying focused, and positioning your efforts in a language that speaks to your executive team, you may be the person who begins an open cultural transformation in your company.

Do you already have an open culture at your company? If so, pass on some additional tips for becoming more open in the comments section below.

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Chris Grams is the Head of Marketing at Tidelift and author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World. Twitter LinkedIn Email: chris(at)


Great to see some straight-forward notes on how the open culture applies in a business environment, outside of the technological.

I already see an uphill battle at my company but there are other places where this will become a handy measuring stick.

I know the article title is a bit, well, depressing... but I also hate to see people getting all filled up with great open source happy-talk, then have all of their hopes and dreams dashed at the first meeting with an old skool exec... some times it is better to heed the warning signs and proceed with caution-- might help get even better results in the long run...

This is really more about a culture of openness than "open source" (as in Linux), and it's right on the money. I only hope more open source projects can learn from this too--too many open source developers shut themselves off in an island of their own code and mailing lists and ignore what's going on in the wider world.

Hi there,
Good points, to the point :-)

I think those can almost be applied as is on my case, just replace "company" by "public administration"...

Personnally, where I work (somewhere in Switzerland, close to a lake, in the french speaking side ;-) those 3 criterions are just well for analysis purposes on our road to Open Source:

1. Decisions in this administration are made behind closed doors, definetly. And it's extremely hard to find any official PV of decisions... believe me, I tried for example to get the answer to this question: is ODF an official standard for our administration? I know that someone has a sort of "white journal" and I heard that ODF is not listed (yet?) in this notebook, but I did not have a chance to see it, neither challenge it seriously...

2. Senior executive are leading the way... hmm yes and no... not quite... some try, they speak, but are not exactly followed, in acts...
For example, dates to go open source are set at a (very) high level, but people below just don't follow (not to be blamed, really, they just are in bad position: they are asked to change their safe habits to explore new unknown wolds with lil resources and full responsibilities if it does not work)...

3. By looking at our website, we talking "at" the people (not "with"), definetly... "authentic dialog with the outside world" - bbrrrrr frightening ;-)


culture is good.....while politics in place as well....
"open" takes effort....

I use to work for a large company listed on one of the stock exchanges. They adhered to all of your points. The office was open, the management stated they had bought into open source, and they always stated they default to open. During the couse of discussions about products, and innovations eventually there was always some type of review process that needed to be initiated for further discussion. When aspects of the company's open communications were brought into question, the definition of open communications were redefined, so that I could have a "more accurate understanding" of the "company view", and correct my misperceptions. You are correct in that this truly has to start at the top, yet it has to be more than lip service and manipulation for the preservation of the status quo.

In many respects this reminded me of the campaigns of misinformation from the old Soviet Politburo.

It goes beyond "talking at", and "talking with" to actually seeing the implementation. In a mature company this is not easy at best, and ostracizing at worst.

The other part of this discussion is what to do when you are pitted against those that say one thing and do another. After awhile the decision was easy, and I found another smaller company that was truly open. Part of this is recognizing that you can not teach an elephant to tap dance on the head of a pin and moving on. It is very easy to get trapped in the rhetoric of the company line and compromise a little here and a little there, especially when you are being payed very handsomely. Ultimately, there is a point when it is obvious as to the circumstances that you have to make a choice as to what you are going to accept and at what price.

Aside: When I clicked on the "Terms of Use" link it did not open a pop-up window as I had expected; it took me to a completely new page resulting in having to retype what I had originally entered. I did not see any link to make suggestions on usability and interfaces. Can you have someone look into this?

Vladimir, when you say "Aside: When I clicked on the "Terms of Use" link it did not open a pop-up window as I had expected" where did you do this at?

I'm guessing perhaps on the submit comment form, but would like you to confirm before we look into a solution for this.


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