6 questions to accelerate open source in non-tech companies

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There’s now an accelerating trend of businesses adopting strategies reflective of the open source way—creating new value through development of some kind of purpose-driven community committed to open exchange and collaboration, prototype-driven solutions, and "the best ideas win."

Of course open source approaches are now well established in the technology sector, (e.g. Red Hat; MacAfee and its volunteer user support experts; EMC and its multiple technical communities; GitHub organized around volunteer code review communities, et al) but perhaps more interesting—and certainly less common—are non-technical businesses which are starting to apply more general "open-source thinking" to their work: it's not so much the “letter” of open source software development but the “spirit” of community-driven collaboration.

These are companies that are not in the business of making chips, devices, or code but have come to see the strategic value of engaging networks of volunteers aligned around a shared purpose, open collaboration, and "learn by doing" approaches. The most familiar (and simple) examples are the companies building "brand experience" by encouraging communities of customers to share applications and stories of their products via social media (e.g. Nike and runners, Starbucks and coffee drinkers).

More focused applications can be seen in companies pursuing innovation by calling on "open communities" to develop or refine new product and services. Sometimes the communities are internal, assembled across org-chart boundaries wherever good ideas can be found and nurtured collectively; but increasingly they are also external to the company (as well as both internal and external), bringing together employees, customers, and/or other volunteer contributors, and co-creating through a community innovative, market-pleasing solutions of some kind. Thus Charles Schwab created the “Schwab Trading Community,” fostering a collaborative community of over 11,000 securities trading customers, with the goal of increasing wealth for all participants. CEMEX, the global business materials company, initiated a transformational program called “SHIFT” that mobilized thousands of its employees to develop ideas and innovate around six strategic initiatives for the company. Bumble Bee Seafoods founded an industry-leading collaborative called the International Sustainability Seafood Foundation, a cross-sector community of tuna processors, scientists and conservation environmentalists to develop and enforce standards for managing stocks of endangered tuna around the world—for both the health of the species and the viability of the industry.

Though Linux and now many other technology companies have amply demonstrated how communities of volunteers and users can add significant value to development and support efforts, the decision to embrace a comparable strategy by non-tech companies involves a bigger leap—and bold new leadership willing to wade into some unfamiliar territory. Whereas a "hacker culture” inclines tech oriented users to join with others to solve common problems, and leaders to embrace that approach for their companies,  it’s not nearly so automatic for, say, executives who deal with making cement, selling coffee, or marketing the trading of stocks and bonds. In fact for many non-technical leaders today, “embracing the crowd” (or a community of volunteers, or networks of customers, etc.) is still a big unknown, often seeming to be fraught with unmanageable costs and risks.

The barriers would-be open source leaders often fear begin with a natural bias which seems like a deal-breaker from the get-go: to the traditional executive, social media communities or open source approaches seem to be something rare and magically arising, with no role that any leader actually plays. In fact, case after case demonstrates that leaders do in fact matter, and that although many communities do initially self-organize, there’s a role for leaders who cultivate, align, and long-term sustain the value they can create. Many traditional leaders are also inherently uncomfortable with the seeming paradox of turning to a community for some kind of strategic help—the freedom, diversity, and flexibility that allows networks of people to develop innovative solutions seems at odds with classic management requirements of “ensuring accountability” and “delivering results.”

And then of course, there is also the enduring issue—and let’s not kid ourselves, it’s still pretty common—that many leaders fear losing control or don’t want to share the power or glory with some ephemeral group of people of uncertain location, loyalty, or commitment. How does “turning to the community” square with the perks and predictability of rule from the corner office?

What’s needed now to accelerate the open source revolution for non-tech businesses is a lot more learning—stories, case examples, profiles of success—about how leadership really works in a world increasingly building new value through volunteer communities. Yes, there’s a growing body of anecdotal evidence, and it’s popping up more and more—but we lack detailed understanding and well-codified practice about how successful open source leaders think and act in this new approach to strategy and work.

To cite just a few questions where members of our own, extended “open source community” might start to weigh in:

  • Who are some of the most exemplary business leaders today using open source approaches in their businesses? What makes them successful in doing so?
  • What barriers have they overcome (in their own words)? How have they done so?
  • What are the key roles of the new kind of leader in governance? Membership enrollment for communities? Setting vision? Ongoing engagement? Conflict resolution?
  • What are the key mindsets and behaviors that make for a leader who is successful in adapting open source approaches to strategy? How are such mindsets and behaviors learned and practiced?
  • How do the best leaders cope with the uncertainties of sharing power? Taking on the risk of working with non-traditional talent in non-traditional ways? Entrust their company’s success, confidential assets, product integrity, and brand to crowds they don’t know?
  • How do the best leaders adapt to the differing styles of community production—diversity of approach, more episodic timelines, bottlenecking debates?

The list could of course be extended. And here’s hoping that it will—and that this post encourages further discussion and shaping of practice. Please join me in exploring this 'leadership learning agenda'.

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Brook Manville is a Washington D.C.-based independent consultant who works with mission-focused organizations and provides executive counseling to leaders around the world.

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