Today I have a guest post from a friend, Frankie Ridolfi, who has written an article about open source organizations.
John and I recently met for a lunch conversation about marketing strategy as it pertains to innovation and organizational development. Over fish and chips, I shared two of my passionate beliefs. First, businesses and individuals must innovate in order to thrive in the “creative economy.” Second, companies can spur innovation by hiring with a more open and imaginative mindset about who is likely to be productive. This led us to discuss how principles from the “open source” model of software creation could be translated into strategies for inspiring an innovative culture.
You’ll recall that the term open source refers to a system in which voluntary programmers contribute to a software development project. Emphasis is on the word “open.” People are judged primarily by the content of their creations. It doesn’t matter if the individual has the “right” credentials or educational pedigree, has directly applicable experience, or whether her strengths and weaknesses match up to a conventional set of expectations. What matters is her passion, ability to communicate and productivity. One obvious benefit is that the pool of talent expands vastly.
ITA Software embraced this idea in a novel way by canvassing Boston’s “T” subway system with posters containing brain teasers. The company develops sophisticated airline ticketing systems and needed to attract brilliant engineers. Riders were presented with logical riddles and encouraged to apply for a job if they had the answer. Imagine—they opened their candidate pool to the entire public transit system! They immediately know several things about their applicants: they are intrinsically motivated, they are passionate about solving technical problems and they are highly intelligent. Self-selection is one powerful aspect of open source thinking. It simultaneously flings the doors wide open and invites the qualified few. Businesses that learn to work with it rather than fear it stand to benefit profoundly.
What about quality—do too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth? Not necessarily with software. Given attentive leadership (usually by a project’s founder), the quality often equals or exceeds that of proprietary industry products. Apple took advantage of this fact by building it’s OS X operating system on a UNIX open source platform. Microsoft’s ubiquitous “Office” software is facing stiff competition from an equivalent software suite, all free, created by OpenOffice.org. As a result, most businesses now recognize that the open source concept is too important to ignore.
Another lesson from open source pertains to motivation. It’s important to understand why people offer such highly desired skills for free. Businesses, listen up! Most contributors are motivated by the chance to make a valuable contribution and be recognized by peers, to use their gifts for a greater purpose. Personal accomplishment in the context of a community is the principle reward. Employees within a traditional organization are motivated by the same desires. True, people generally won’t work for free. But they do seek environments in which their unique talents are respected and the fruits of their labor are appreciated. Employees will volunteer incredibly valuable ideas about how to improve processes and solve problems—just like they do in open source software—if they do not feel taken advantage of.
Finally, a guiding principle of open source that is almost too obvious to see: innovation should never be stifled. Unexpected innovations occasionally present themselves—solution looking for problems. It takes an open-minded leadership and a creative culture to relate these to the overall business strategy. Xerox missed a historic opportunity to capitalize on the mouse and the GUI, inventions which changed the world and made other companies rich. Imagination at the leadership level was lacking. I don’t know what their stated marketing strategy was at the time, but my guess is that it could have accommodated these new innovations if the decision makers had really listened to their designers. Open source thinking.
My sense is that the most innovative businesses will push the boundaries of what open source means. Strategy itself seems as subject to individual perception as anything else humans do. The more perspectives and talents that are applied to it, the greater the likelihood of innovation. Open source organizations seem better positioned to capitalize on the productivity of their workforce or the public than those in which strategic decisions are made in relative isolation. For company's hunting for the next big strategy, it's open season for open source.
Frankie Ridolfi is an interactive marketing contractor living in Cambridge, MA.
He recently produced an instructional DVD on book binding ( www.BookBindingGuy.com )