Win-Win Works

December 1, 2008 Jack Repenning

In BusinessWeek today, Stuart Cohen exactly describes the open-source business value most critical to the inner-source model:

Companies today are coming together to form "communities" of subject matter professionals—executives, business managers, doctors, or researchers—to define software that can be produced at much lower cost. The cliché that everyone wins may be corny, but it’s true here.

It’s a bit unfortunate that he went for shock value in the title ("Open
Source: The Model Is Broken"), which requires him to spend almost half
the article setting up a false, straw-man view of "the" open source
business model (based solely on support revenue), so he can knock it down. As Matt Asay points out, "[a]ll successful open-source companies have always had some value-add beyond the base code itself. But no matter for our purposes: collaboration is the key, as he eventually argues, whether within a single organization ("inner" sourcing), with partners, or in industry consortia. Collaboration turns out to be a powerful method for producing more, better software—and standards, designs, and documentation as well, all the work products of the information age.

In some ways, the inner-sourcerer has an advantage over the consortium or community worker. To begin with (and the inevitable internecine frictions notwithstanding), it’s a bit easier to agree on common fundamentals within a single organization, than among companies competing head to head. Whether it’s in negotiation the basic requirements, or communicating possibly sensitive business plans, or occasionally lending resources among participating teams, the commonality of a single corporate organization can help to lower barriers. Similarly, success by one team can be viewed as success of the organization as a whole, without any overtones of lost competitive advantage. Methods can be adopted without the taint of "playing catch-up."

Open- and inner-sourcing, today, is about communities with something to gain—communities of companies, of departments, of internal projects; communities in specialized disciplines, in vertical markets, and in the hurley-burley of internal and corporate-IT tooling. They succeed by building a community of participation that mirrors and supports the existing community of needs.

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