The Spectrum from Open to Closed[]

Open source is a rebellion against the established corporate order of proprietary ownership of software and ideas. It is sparking a ferocious conflict between pure open source and at the other end of the spectrum pure closed, commercial forms of organisation: Linux, in one corner, Microsoft in the other. Open source is a damning critique of everything that big business stands for and an essential challenge to monopolists such as Microsoft and Monsanto that make it very difficult for new commercial challengers to emerge. More open source style challengers emerge in other areas, such as biotechnology, education, law, politics and financial services. In virtually every field it is now possible to imagine open source style alternatives to traditional organisations. Sourceforge.net, the online repository of open source projects now lists thousands and they are growing the whole time. These open source alternatives often attract talent, excite the imagination and allow people to self-organise in a way that traditional organisations cannot imagine.

Yet our organisational future will not be a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ choice, open or closed, public or private. Between traditional, pure and closed organisations at one end of the spectrum, where ultimately the boss rules and the company owns all the assets, and the pure open end of the spectrum, where the community owns and no one tells you what to do, a vast and very fertile middle ground is opening up. eBay, Craigslist and many other organisations are starting to operate in this space. It will spawn a rich array of new hybrids. At the edges of this middle ground we will find traditional companies seeking to develop more open and interactive approaches to innovation with communities of developers and users. Phillips the giant Dutch electronics company, for example is redesigning its famous national laboratory in Eindhoven, where much of the early work on the light bulb was done, to accommodate a range of outside companies. The Phillips national laboratory used to be like an intellectual fortress, surrounded by high fences and barbed wire, to make sure all the secrets were kept safe. Now Phillips wants to create a campus where its researchers will work alongside others, sharing ideas. Nokia, the Finnish mobile telecommunications company, has an online forum through which it works with thousands of smaller developers, on applications for mobile services. The forum has elicited more than 1m contributors from user-developers. Intel, the semi-conductor giant, has adopted open and collaborative approaches to innovation, with hosts of developers to make sure the technologies it developers meet their needs.

At the other end of the spectrum we should expect open source initiatives that started life with a group of volunteers to become increasingly dependent on corporate support. IBM and Hewlett Packard are donating thousands of hours of developer time to open source platforms. Many smaller software companies are finding that collaborating to develop a shared software platform is the only way they can do research and development. Linux itself is the basis for a mass of commercial activity. The Linux community supports a range of companies such as Red Hat and VA Linux which make a good living, selling services linked to the implementation and application of Linux software.

Nor will organisations have to occupy just one position on the spectrum. They could attempt to adopt open, participative approaches to some aspects of their work, closed and commercial approaches to others. The computer games industry, for example, develops the core to its games in house, at great expense. But once the game is released, as we will see, that is the basis for massive open innovation among players. Equally innovations that start as open, shared knowledge amongst a group of user-developers – an example we explore in the next chapter is the mountain bike – can then become the basis for commercial businesses. Organisations such as the Institute for Microelectronics in Leuven, Flanders, one of Europe’s most impressive industrial research facilities brings together researchers from more than 300 international semi-conductor companies in pooled research projects. Teams of researchers from several companies join forces to thrash out solutions to shared problems with technologies that might be three to five years from the market. The companies contributing to these projects each have rights to use the combined knowledge generated. How they exploit this shared knowledge base commercially is up to them.

In the long run the most effective way to make sure open source style working prospers is to expand the base of people and organisations that adopt it. If open source remains just for software geeks with an altruistic bent, then it is likely to remain an interesting but marginal pastime. To make a big impact on the way we organise ourselves open source style methods – collaborative, distributed, co-created ways of working – have to migrate into schools, health systems, banks, governments. They have to move from the margins to the mainstream. Open source conceived as a rebellion against the established corporate order has to become a way of transforming traditional corporations. Companies based on communities, like eBay and Craigslist, challenge all organisations to think again about some very basic questions about how they work, innovate and treat their consumers. Lets start with the changing relationship with consumers. In the era of mass creativity the very idea of the consumer may be misleading. If more production and innovation is going to be done by the masses, not just for them, then we need to see consumers as participants and contributors, demand can create its own supply.

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