The open source organization: good in theory or good in reality?

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Open organization buildings

On occasion I get the opportunity to speak publicly about some of the things I've learned over the years applying the open source way in organizations.

In almost every case, when the Q&A session arrives, I'm greeted with at least one question from a poor soul who loves the idea of applying the open source way to management and culture, but doesn't think it would ever work in his/her specific organization. Usually the comment is accompanied by some horror story about an evil co-worker, hierarchical boss, crappy HR policy, or some other impediment that would cause the open source way to fail.

And the sad truth? These folks are probably right. Many of these concepts wouldn't work in their organizations.

So why do I waste my time talking about things that may not work in many organizations? Two reasons:

1) hope

2) the wind


Let me be honest. I've never run into a perfect model of the open source way in practice (if you have, please point it out to me!).

There are clearly some organizations that have figured out how to build open source principles into their DNA better than others. Wikipedia is a good example. The Fedora Project is another. Still, my guess is the people who are deeply involved in those projects on a daily basis would probably be able to show you some warts, places where old-skool practices are still evident.

We've set our company New Kind up as a corporate lab for the open source way. But we can't make a case for perfection here either. We are still learning and prototyping.

So why not be more realistic? Why not give up and accept that some of these principles work better in theory than they do in practice?

Simple: I have hope.

What gives me hope? Two things. First, I have seen first-hand many examples of great things that happen when open source principles are applied within organizations. From the collaboratively-designed mission of Red Hat to the work of Fedora marketing team, I've personally witnessed the power of open source principles in action.

Second, I believe in the pursuit of perfection. Why not aspire to create better companies than we have today? What do we have to lose? I don't know that we will ever see a perfect open source company. But by pursuing perfection, we are likely to get a heck of a lot closer than where we are today.

The wind

Watch out when I start quoting Bob Dylan, but we've all heard the lyric from Subterranean Homesick Blues:

"You don't need a weather man to know which way the wind blows."

The other reason I love talking about applying open source principles within organizations is because I'm pretty confident which way the wind is blowing.

I think Gary Hamel knows too. In fact, he wrote a nice post on last week describing in detail some of the characteristics that the next-generation workforce will be looking for in the companies where they spend their days. From the article:

The experience of growing up online will profoundly shape the workplace expectations of “Generation F” – the Facebook Generation. At a minimum, they’ll expect the social environment of work to reflect the social context of the web, rather than as is currently the case, a mid-20th-century Weberian bureaucracy.

Well said. Each year, as more and more folks enter the workforce who grew up with the transparency, access, collaboration, openness, and level playing field of the Internet, we will see more and more workers rebel against the status quo.

Most likely, these new employees will rebel with their feet. They'll join a new breed of organization designed from scratch, like Red Hat, Google, and 100s of other yet unknown companies, built from the ground up to operate efficiently in an open world.

Old-skool companies will have a tough time attracting the best young talent. And if they are losing the race for top talent, they be hard pressed to stay competitive.

So this is why I love to talk about applying the open source way in organizations, even when I know that many of today's corporate cultures would chew open source principles up and spit them out.

I'm just running with the wind.

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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)


Google certainly represents a company best suited to living in a connected world. But I've visited and signed the NDA (required even to enter the premises). Google (like Intel, IBM, Microsoft et. al.) is far from transparent.

Stephen -

I've visited Googleplex and did not require any NDA to be signed - so please do go around saying that. FWIW, *I* was threatened to be disallowed from entering Microsoft Singapore offices in 2007 when a bunch of MS OOXML people came to meet and discuss that disast^H^H^H^H^H^Hheadache.


What do you expect from a Microsoft employee?
Bashing Google and other competitors...
wow, quel surprise!!

This guys job is about bullspiting. 
He is a paid bullspiter like Raimi and Bill Milf before him trying 
to make the world believe that they grok open source (they do, 
as long as it benefits them only).

While Ballmer, Guttierez and other heads keep attacking open 
source and Linux, the paid liars are supposed to make us 
believe that its now different. 
Problem is no one ever pays attention to low level managers 
when it comes to gauge the direction of a company, you go
 by what the bigwigs say and they always sing the same tune
(Linux has stolen our IP and other such classics).

This weeks statement about open source by Microsoft VP for 
Latin America, H. Rincon is once again proof that you dont 
listen to the paid liars but rather what company heads say.

Rincon is responsible for long term business strategy for 46 countries so it was not a surprise that his attack on FLOSS 
was done in Brazil which is one of the most pro-FLOSS country 
in the world..
So pay attention to the guys with the VP titles and what they say
and dont bother with their astroturfers whose job is to keep your attention elsewhere.

MS is incapable of collaborative work unlike Google, IBM and 
Intel so its better to point competitors errors that ones own.

@Harkness: Haven't been for almost six years. I completely agree with you that culture comes from the top of an org. Please point out the Rincon URL -- I'd love to go to town on it. If you actually did your homework before calling me a liar you might have read any of the writing I've done on Msft over the past half dozen years and realized I regularly shine a bright light on their activities and missed opportunities.

@Harish: Thanks for pointing out that Google no longer requires NDA for entrance into the premises. As little as a three years ago I was still hearing complaints from friends in Beijing about how hostile the Google NDA was on entrance there.

Perhaps you are not so adept in using the web and may I suggest:

Please, do keep you part of the bargain and go to town.

You are right stephen i agree with what you say, just imagine that where will this opensource technology will go in coming 5 years
<A href="">opensource</A>

I have long been applying the opensource philosophy in my work and it is difficult to do so. Colleagues take the merit or experienced workers who doesn't like to share the lessons.
But I am going to continue like this, asking questions and giving answers, learning and improving. It is the only way.

I have found open source organization to be more applicable to smaller organizations. With less people there's a lower chance of having the one incompetent employee/manager that throws the whole system off. Programs like <a href="">kolb learning</a> can help make the inevitable transition easier when you business gets big enough.

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