Graunt Kruger
Graunt Kruger

What business can learn from the open-source movement

When was the last time you thought “I love the company I work for?” Google came out tops in a recent Fortune magazine “Best Companies to work for in the US” survey. They were lauded for their generous employee benefits and facilities. These types of tangible benefits are easy to see, measure and appreciate. It’s only half the picture though. Norms as values don’t make great cover shots. Daycare centres, sprawling restaurants and glossy gyms do.

The focus on the provision of facilities and perks can be costly but no doubt enhances the working lives of employees. Spare a thought though for people who work for NGOs, the state or volunteer at various community organisations. Before your company dives headlong into a over-spend on cappuccino machines and massage tables, think for a minute about some of the intangible factors that bring the worker bees to your hive. Peer recognition and the resulting status in the group are some of the other kinds of elements that employers can put in place to ensure that their staff enjoy coming to work every day.

The open source movement, which is responsible for some of the most important innovations in IT such as the world wide web, Linux and Apache, neither pays fat bonuses nor offers flashy facilities. It does, however, provide much by the way of intangible benefits. Extensive research into the movement (see two key references below) gives us some ideas about what we, as businesspeople, can learn.

The movement is often regarded as either altruistic — or more harshly — as some form of communist or socialist plot to overthrow the capitalist mainstream. Hackers, as open source coders are known (see definition), are set up as anti-Microsoft terrorists. On the contrary, this quote, taken from an article by Weber (see reference below) best illustrates the power of the open source movement: “Collaborative Open Source software projects such as Linux and Apache have demonstrated, empirically, that a large, complex system of code can be built, maintained, developed, and extended in a nonproprietary setting where many developers work in a highly parallel, relatively unstructured way and without direct monetary compensation.” And add to this that it evolves at a pace that Microsoft would be envious of.

The movement is hardly egalitarian though. A project will have an owner, who is usually someone trying to solve a certain problem, such as Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the world wide web) who was trying to find a way to help high-energy physicists to share their work. This owner is recognised by the community at large as having the exclusive right to distribute versions of the work. A core group of developers will contribute the bulk of the code. In the case of Apache, 72% of the code was developed by 10% of hackers. The next layer is the defect repairers and then finally the problem reporters, who are the largest group.

The open source movement has been described as a gift culture, where power derives not from what you own, but from what you give away. This is not intended to sound benevolent. Quite the contrary. Gift-giving brings with it the obligation to return the gift, if not in the similar form then in the form of interconnectedness between the giver and the recipient. A form of interdependency results which forms the basis on which social structure can be organised.

Comparisons between the hackers and academics have resulted in theoretical congruencies such as the consequent status and recognition from gift giving. Academics share their research, knowledge, methods and results with a community of peers and gain status within this community, in much the same way as hackers who contribute code which is regarded as valuable by fellow hackers.

As second similarity between the two communities comes in the form of peer review. The work of hackers, like that of academics, is submitted for review by a group in order to ascertain the value of the contribution. Only once the group has decided that the work is of a certain quality will it be incorporated into the body of knowledge of that community. The contributor always retains ownership of the ideas, and is always credited when another person uses or cites the work.

A final point to note is that the open source movement constantly and consciously enforces its social norms and values. “Newbies” as new members are known are socialized into the community by older members who share the rules of engagement or netiquette for appropriate behaviour in chatrooms and newsgroups where much of their interactions occur. Unwelcome behaviour can result in flaming — the flooding of the offender’s inbox with hundreds of emails.

Flaming is a way of ensuring that the core values of the group remain intact, but can also deter people from posting contributions in the first place for fear of vicious attacks from the group.

Google, with its luxurious spread in Mountain View is often described as a college campus rather than a corporate headquarters. I wonder to what extent the norms and values of the open source and academic movements as described here are prevalent. Isn’t it better to keep that a secret and let the world’s attention remain on jet-stream lap pools and sushi chefs?

[INSERT YOUR CONTRIBUTION HERE.]

References
Definition of hackers on Wikipedia

Bergquist, M. and Ljungberg, J. (2001) ‘The Power of Gifts: Organizing Social Relationships in Open Source Communities’, Information Systems Journal, Vol. 11, No. 4, pp. 305-320.

Weber, S. (2000) ‘The Political Economy of Open Source Software’, E-conomy Project, Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy.
http://e-conomy.berkeley.edu/publications/wp/wp140.pdf