How open source solves the innovation problem

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A couple of weeks ago, a Chief Digital Officer (CDO) of one of the largest mobile telecommunications companies in the world asked me how a large organization such as hers should think about organizing itself to maintain control over costs and risks while still giving their global organization the freedom to innovate.

When it comes to managing their websites and the digital customer experience, they have over 50 different platforms managed by local teams in over 50 countries around the world, she told me. Her goal is to improve operational efficiency, improve brand consistency, and set governance by standardizing on a central platform. The challenge is that they have no global IT organization that can force the different teams to re-platform.

When she asked me if I had any insights from my work with other large global organizations, it occurred to me the ideal model she's seeking is aligned with how an open source project like Drupal is managed (a subject I have more than a passing interest in).

Teams in different countries around the world often demand full control and decision-making authority over their own web properties and reject centralization. How, then, might someone in a large organization get the rest of the organization to rally behind a single platform and encourage individual teams and departments to innovate and share their innovations within the organization?

Look to open source

In a large open source project such as Drupal, contributions to the project can come from anywhere. On the one extreme, there are corporate sponsors who cover the cost of full-time contributors; on the other extreme there are individuals making substantial contributions from dorm rooms, basements, and cabins in the woods. Open source's contribution models are incredible at coordinating, accepting, evaluating, and tracking the contributions from a community of contributors distributed around the world. Can that model be applied in the enterprise, so contributions can come from every team or individual in the organization?

Reams have been written on how to incubate innovation, how to source it from the wisdom of the crowd, ignite it in the proverbial garage, or buy it from some entrepreneurial upstart. For large organizations like the mobile telecommunications company where this CDO works, innovation is about building (again, like open source) communities of practice, where a culture of test-and-learn is encouraged, and sharing—the essence of open source—is rewarded. Consider the library of modules available to extend Drupal: there can be several contributed solutions for a particular need—say, embedding a carousel of images or adding commerce capabilities to a site—all developed independently by different developers, but all available to the community to test, evaluate, and implement.

It may seem redundant (some would argue inefficient) to have multiple options available for the same task, but the fact that there are multiple solutions means more choices for people building experiences. It's inconceivable for a proprietary software company to fund five different teams to develop five different modules for the same task. They develop one and that is what their customers get. In a global innovation network, teams have the freedom to experiment and share their solutions with their peers—but only if there is a structure and culture in place that rewards sharing them through a single platform.

Centers of Excellence (CoEs) are familiar models for sharing expertise and building alignment around a digital strategy in a decentralized, global enterprise. Some form multiple CoEs around shared utility functions such as advanced data analytics, search engine optimization, social media monitoring, and content management. CoEs have also grown to include Communities of Practice (CoP), where various "communities" of people doing similar things for different products or functions in multiple departments or locations coalesce to share insights and techniques. In companies with which I've worked that have standardized on Drupal, I've seen internal Drupal Camps and hackathons pop up much as they do within the Drupal community at-large.

Some parting advice

My advice to the CDO? Loosen control without losing control.

That may sound like a "have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too" cliche, but the open source model grew around models of crowd-sourced collaboration, constant and transparent communications, meritocracies, and a governance model that provides the platform and structure to keep the community pointed at a common goal.

What would be my guidance for getting started?

  1. Start with a small pilot. Build that pilot around a team that includes the different functions of local country teams and bring them together into one working model where they can evangelize their peers and become the nucleus of a future CoE "community." Usually, one or more champions will arise from that.

  2. Establish a collaboration model where innovations can be shared back to the rest of the organization, and where each innovation can be analyzed and discussed. This is the essence of Drupal's model, with acting as the clearing house for contributions coming in from everywhere in the world.

Drupal and open source were created to address a need, and from their small beginnings grew something large and powerful. It is a model any business can replicate within their organization. So take a page out of the open source playbook: innovate, collaborate, and share. Governance and innovation can coexist, but for that to happen, you have to give up a measure of control and start to think outside the box.

Dries Buytaert headshot
Dries Buytaert is the original creator and project lead for Drupal, an open source platform for building websites and digital experiences.

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Originally published at the author's website and reprinted here under the terms of a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license.