Thinking about employee motivation beyond the paycheck principle

Good leaders know what economics can’t explain about open source

Posted 28 Jan 2016 by 

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Last week, I lucked into 30 minutes on the phone with one of my favorite people: author, speaker, blogger, and activist Cory Doctorow. Our conversation ran the gamut—from open source's role in building a better future, to the function of science fiction literature today, to Cory's preference for prose over code. At one point, Cory offered a rather succinct and evocative explanation of what motivates people to contribute to open source projects. And what he said got me thinking about open organizations.

Making open source software, Cory explained, is an artistic endeavor. Any analysis of why people do it should begin with that assumption.

"People don't make art for market reasons if they're being rational actors," Cory told me, "because the expected return of their artistic endeavors is somewhere between 'zero' and 'nothing', in the same way that they expect a return on the Powerball. It doesn't mean that people don't win the Powerball; it just means that if you're being a rational economic actor, then you don't invest your money in Powerball. I feel like the same is true of the arts."

People contribute to open source projects for any number of reasons, Cory said, but two of those consistently stand out to him. The first he called (using a phrase generations of open source programmers, following Eric Raymond, have preferred) "scratching an itch."

"There's just something you want done, or it would tickle you if it were done, and so you make it," Cory said. "There are a lot of labors of love, and I think that most of art is, at core, this kind of labor of love."

Cory called the second reason people make open source software the "Stallmanian" one.

"Ethical hacking," he clarified. "There's an intervention you want the work to make in the world, that will make the world a better place for some important reason. That's another reason people make art."

Cory Doctorow certainly isn't the first to puzzle over peoples' motivations for contributing to open source projects. For some time, in fact, bright minds have been trying to determine just what drives people to work the open source way.

And they agree with Doctorow on at least one point: framing the problem simply in economic terms won't furnish an adequate answer.

In fact, from a purely (albeit traditional) economic perspective, "open source" shouldn't even work. Political scientist Steven Weber explored this conundrum in his 2004 book, The Success of Open Source. It's perhaps the most sustained and rigorous investigation of open source's political economy that I've ever read.

"The microfoundations of the open source process depend on behavior that is at first glance surprising, even startling," Weber writes. "Public goods theory predicts that nonrival and nonexcludable goods ought to encourage free riding. Particularly if the good is subject to collective provision, and many people must contribute together to get something of value, the system should unravel backward toward underprovision."

In other words, because open source code is available to anyone (that is, it's "non-excludable"), and because it's easily replicable at low (or no) cost (i.e., it's "non-rival"), received economic theory would seem to suggest that no one should feel motivated to maintain, improve, or add value to it.

"Why, then, do highly talented programmers choose voluntarily to allocate some or a substantial portion of their time and mind space to a joint project for which they will not be compensated?" Weber asks.

Why, indeed. What, then, is the incentive?

Like Cory Doctorow, we might ask the same question of any creative practice—especially those people undertake together. Jim Whitehurst does. In The Open Organization, Jim explains the need to consider employees' motivations beyond the matter of the paycheck. Today, he says, employees demand a concrete sense of purpose at work, something that transcends economic compensation. Maybe they want to scratch an itch. Maybe they want to populate the world with something they think would bring others great joy. Maybe they want to intervene.

Whatever the reason, economic rationality won't illuminate it. But open leaders need to discover it. And they can turn to open source communities for insight. Yet again, they likely have something important to teach us about the reasons we organize today.

4 Comments

Don Watkins

Great article and thanks for sharing what you learned from Cory Doctorow. "People don't make art for market reasons if they're being rational actors," and ""Why, then, do highly talented programmers choose voluntarily to allocate some or a substantial portion of their time and mind space to a joint project for which they will not be compensated?" are two quotes that stood out for me. I recently read Seth Godin's, "Linchpin, Are You Indispensible" and he too talked of the artist and its importance in our lives. I disagree with Steven Weber though and not over market principles but universal principles that clearly favor doing good. Everytime I give away what I have it almost certainly returns to me in some other way. It may not always be money but the good will always returns.

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bbehrens

Thanks so much for reading, Don, and for your comment. I should be clear so I don't misrepresent Weber's position on open source: He does not necessarily endorse the "strong" economic position on conceptualizing open source. He just begins with it in his book in order to show just how incapable it is of adequately accounting for the "open source" phenomenon.

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Ray Lambert

Good article. I have an observation on the "Public goods theory":

"Particularly if the good is subject to collective provision, and many people must contribute together to get something of value, the system should unravel backward toward underprovision."

I think notion is wrong in at least some circumstances. The theory (as quoted at least) fails to consider whether there is a *need* for the goods. If there is no real need for the goods then I would agree with the theory. But if there is a need individuals within the collective will step up to meet the need when underproduction occurs. Think food production in an agrarian community. Or... software production in open source. :)

In fact, underproduction is one of the very things that drives individuals to produce OSS (because of a perceived need for that SW). "I need X and it doesn't exist so I will build it..." I have personally had (and acted upon) that very thought. :)

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bbehrens

Interesting insight, Ray. Thanks very much for sharing.

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Bryan Behrenshausen

Bryan Behrenshausen | Bryan has been a member of the Opensource.com team since 2011. In 2015, he earned his PhD in Communication from UNC, Chapel Hill. When he's not thinking or writing about all things open source, he's playing retro video games or reading classic science fiction. Around the Net, he goes by the nickname "semioticrobotic."

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