by Elana Varon

The Way You Work, the Way You Think

May 17, 20064 mins

I’ve been thinking about what the open source movement might be able to teach us about IT innovation in the enterprise. But first, apologies for the long hiatus. I have been collecting a bunch of material over the past few weeks, and I’m going to get it posted, but it may take a week or so.

Here’s where I got to thinking about open source: Last week I attended the annual summit of the Cutter Consortium, a consultancy based in Cambridge, Mass. It’s an unusual event in the way it brings together academics, consultants, senior IT leaders and technologists to talk about the big ideas facing IT. Innovation was the big thread running through a lot of the conversations this time – what’s driving it, how innovation is manifesting itself in companies and, the thing that interested me the most, the relationship between innovation and how IT is done. Because the structures you have in place to organize your work, and the assumptions you make about that structure, are going to have a big influence on the outcome.

This point crystallized for me when I was listening to a roundtable discussion about—surprise! innovation. Richard Sears, an entrepreneur (he pioneered commercial standards for infrared technology) and consultant, observed that today’s corporate model—and the role that IT plays—is a vestige of the post World War II economy. It was a time when U.S. companies didn’t face serious global competition, and so they organized to optimize—to maximize internal efficiency. Meanwhile, corporate governance structures are set up to minimize risk by (if I got this right), ensuring that decision-making is a slow process. Letting underlings make decisions increases the risk that you’ll make a mistake.

And so, the marching orders for IT departments amounted to: save us money, but otherwise change as little as possible.

Although that philosophy has been eroding around the edges for a while now, it can be a long road from wanting to change to actually doing it because you have to change how you do your work as you pursue new types of projects. Here’s where the Cutter folks are on to something. The summit devoted an entire day to the proposition that the open source movement is driving innovation because it is changing how IT work and new ventures are being organized.

Siobhan O’Mahony, a Harvard professor who has been studying open source organizational models, notes that a community of contributors collaborating on a project can enable short production cycles, can provide returns due to network effects, and allows a distributed user community to contribute to a project “in a hands-on way.” (there are potential downsides, too; among them, the possible need to increase coordination among contributors and, when outside contributors are involved, ambiguity about who owns the intellectual property).

Within the enterprise, the open source movement is having an impact in two ways:

1) Using open source software creates a community of developers “that supports itself and solves problems” by working with each other and developing deep skills—rather than dialing the vendor, observes Lynne Ellyn, the CIO with DTE Energy.

 2) It’s influencing governance models for the development and deployment of SOA and services. Think of your application portfolio as a set of services that are contributed by different parts of the business. They still have to be reviewed and approved, but it’s not a top-down process.

People talking to each other, solving problems that they’re interested in, contributing things they think are useful to the enterprise, leads to conversation, to ideas, to innovation.

Let’s explore this topic some more. Are you doing anything like this in your company?