The Open Organization book club: Why opening up your org matters

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We are at an incredible intersection in history. The growth of computing, the Internet, and education is creating a wealth of open innovation around the world. While this was born back in the early days of "free software" in universities, it is now a global phenomenon powering major infrastructure, banks, devices, and more.

It has also spawned hundreds of companies that were born in a culture of open source and collaboration. This is changing how we do business.

The Open Organization is all about taking that spirit of openness and collaboration and injecting into it the complex organism that is a company.

I am honored to kick off The Open Organization Book Club and the coming weeks of ideation, engagement, and exploration around the ideas presented in the book. In the true spirit of openness, your thoughts and insights will help us evolve this fascinating intersection of people, process, and imagination. As part of this, I encourage you to participate, share insights with others, and ask the questions that are important to you.

Let's do it!

Discussion (Chapter 1: Why opening up your organization matters)

In the book club this week, we'll be discussing "Chapter 1: Why Opening Up Your Organization Matters."

"An 'open organization'—which I define as an organization that engages participative communities both inside and out—responds to opportunities more quickly, has access to resources and talent outside the organization, and inspires, motivates, and empowers people at all levels to act with accountability. The beauty of an open organization is that it is not about pedaling harder, but about tapping into new sources of power both inside and outside to keep pace with all the fast-moving changes in your environment." (p. 2)

What fascinates me about The Open Organization is that it fundamentally breaks down many of the broken cultural norms in many companies. It believes that collaboration and ideas can come from anywhere, that they can bubble to the surface with the right combination of people, process, and leadership.

I have seen this myself when I have consulted with companies exploring inner-sourcing and building open source best practice into their organizations. The Open Organization offers a fresh approach to delivering value.

For those of us familiar with this culture, it is empowering and powerful. For those unfamiliar, it can be difficult to wrap your head around. It can be difficult to see how it fits into your business and how it maps to traditional ways of working.

This opens up a bunch of interesting questions I would love to hear your thoughts on:

  • What do you feel is the most effective way to crisply communicate the main benefits of an open organizational model to a senior leadership team in a company?
  • Which companies do you feel are great examples of an open organization, and what are three attributes about each that you feel others can learn from in terms of how they run an open organization?
  • Let's ensure we get a good balance. What are the major risks of an open organization, and how would you mitigate those risks?

I can't wait to hear your thoughts!

A message from Jim


Follow the conversation on Twitter #theopenorg

Jono Bacon is a leading community manager, speaker, author, and podcaster. He is the founder of Jono Bacon Consulting which provides community strategy/execution, developer workflow, and other services. He also previously served as director of community at GitHub, Canonical, XPRIZE, OpenAdvantage, and consulted and advised a range of organizations.


Thanks Jono,

These are interesting questions, and having just finished the book (and having been at Red Hat to learn some of these things first hand), I have some thoughts on your queries:

The most effective way I've found to communicate this is to determine what areas in a company would be a good fit to start out with these principles. While I completely understand and respect Jim's points in the book, I also feel that some parts of the organization (legal, HR) aren't good candidates to run in this fashion, as they require too many 'hard real-time' decisions.

That being said, pointing out to senior leadership how a project like the Linux kernel manages to put together high-quality software on a regular drumbeat with worldwide participation is usually an eye-opener for companies that can't seem to communicate even across internal teams.

Clearly, Red Hat is the poster-child for this type of organization, but, as even Jim admits, it's not perfect, and it's constantly evolving. It's *critically* important when 'selling' this to a company that the notions of 'release early, release often' get understood correctly - this is an evolutionary process, not something that happens overnight.

Jim also correctly points out one of the major risks, which is knowing how to 'close debate' and 'move on.' My time at Red Hat (while awesome) was rife with examples of times where it probably took much longer to 'move on' than it should have, costing the company time, money, or both. A major challenge therefore is making sure that there are strong influencers (not just leaders) who can properly corral and harness these discussions.

I look forward to hearing more from other folks in this Book Club. :)

Guy said, "...I also feel that some parts of the organization (legal, HR) aren't good candidates to run in this fashion, as they require too many 'hard real-time' decisions."

Hmm, in the spirit of the open organization, I'm going to have to disagree with you on this part. :) I actually think that the time is right for HR teams to face up to the challenge, and that they're being pressed to. Here's why:

When you look at websites like, which encourages employees to post anonymous reviews of what's it's like to work at their current and former employers, it's no longer easy for corporate back-office functions (such as HR) to make decisions without being held accountable for them. And frankly, a lot of HR leaders are deeply concerned about that, because they're seeing how this brutally honest and open feedback, out there for all the world to see, impacts their ability to recruit new talent.

So the time is really ripe for a new approach, one that engages people outside of departments like HR, and gives them a voice INSIDE the company.

One of the coolest things for me, about working in an open organization like Red Hat, is while we get negative feedback in places like Glassdoor just like every other company out there... it's rarely stuff that we haven't already heard inside the company, and stuff we've heard from specific individuals who felt comfortable speaking up. So we don't feel blindsided by it; we're aware of where our associates feel we need to improve, and lots of times, we're already engaging with them on those topics.

As the world becomes more open, organizations are going to have to figure out how to deal with that, and I believe the stuff Jim talks about in the book really will (and already does!) put companies ahead of the curve.

In reply to by Guy Martin

I agree with you in principle Rebecca, but let me share the anecdote from my past at Red Hat that caused me to use that as an example.

Note - I *loved* my time at Red Hat - I wouldn't have traded that for the world, as it taught me a ton about open organizational principles, and I really enjoyed working with Jim and others in the company on what would become the (unfortunately) short-lived Open Source Enablement Pathway consulting offering.

When I was building the consulting offering (with open organizational principles), we came to a point that I needed to hire someone to help me in actually delivering it (we had several customers that had signed on). We had to 'borrow' an open req from one of the Cloud consulting teams, and, we got permission both from my manager, as well as our group's Senior VP to hire a specific individual (who was young, but perfect for the job).

What happened next continues to floor me to this day - we explained the situation to the HR team, with an emphasis on the time critical nature of this hire (e.g. - we had customers waiting for delivery who had already paid), and..... they sat on it, then later came back with a 'we don't agree with this hiring decision because the candidate doesn't have the skills sets for this open req.'

Um, yeah, that's what we said when we presented the case to you. Long story short, even though I had the support of a Senior VP to actually make this decision, plus the support of those who'd interviewed the candidate, I almost lost them due to the need for 'everyone to have a vote.'

I think there are cases (like this) that happen all over the company, and that makes it difficult to move the business forward.

In reply to by Rebecca Fernandez

For sure, it will always be messier in real life than in theory. Actually that's a big part of working through these ideas, IMO... getting clearer on how to get input from a lot of people WITHOUT ending up in a place where it's unclear who the final decision maker is, or where everyone feels they have a vote on every decision. Because, as you've so clearly pointed out, people can't get anything done in that kind of environment!

I'm looking forward to the discussion on chapter 6 (making inclusive decisions). Imagine we'll dive more into this kind of stuff!

In reply to by Guy Martin

While I don't have direct experience in a fully open organization, I'm inclined to agree that there are likely tangible benefits to using the open org approach to non-engineering functions, such as HR. One prime benefit to an open org is trust. Imagine that kind of trust developing between the employees and HR? I can say in most places I've worked, HR hasn't been seen as always being there for employees. Using an open org model might change hearts and minds in that regard.

In reply to by Rebecca Fernandez

Shouldn't this book be open (source) too? Also why printed? Should be an eBook.

Jono asks: "What do you feel is the most effective way to crisply communicate the main benefits of an open organizational model to a senior leadership team in a company?"

I'm very interested in hearing the stories of folks who've managed to do this, particularly in cases where leadership doesn't have a background in open source principles, values, and technologies.

Certainly, using examples from open source communities (e.g., Linux, as Guy notes above), is one way to explain open organizational dynamics. But what if your interlocutor doesn't have any experience with these communities—or with open source projects more generally? Surely, having to first explain Linux before being able to explain open organizations is a bit tedious and, well, potentially overwhelming for someone new to the ideas.

What have others done to navigate this hurdle?

I think it's still possible to use Linux as an example. A good storyteller could use the facts involved in Linux success (especially linux kernel with the massive coordination of code committers etc). Then wrap those facts into some kind of analogy that the leadership team could relate to. Whether it is a direct analogy to their own company, or something more generic.

In reply to by Bryan Behrenshausen

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