In the humble beginnings of the GNU and Linux projects, open source was a primitive and narrowly defined idea. It applied only to programming, and was a largely legal designation that sought to guarantee that source code remained available to users even as others augmented it through subsequent contributions.
Now, thirty years later, “open” is sweeping the enterprise. On top of “open source,” we also have “open data,” “open management,” “open design,” “open organizations,”—and even just “open,” which we often take to imply something vague about a progressive policy.
This has all gotten a little confusing, and I believe it would be useful to step back and consider what “open” really means.
The nebulous ways in which we use and define “open” in modern contexts are born, I believe, of an intuitive but largely unvoiced understanding of what it means to us. We can easily describe its characteristics—transparency, information access, visibility, sharing—but underlying all of these concepts is a fact that seems glaringly absent in our definitions:
Open is not an end in and of itself; it is a means to more powerful collaboration.
All of its value, all of the possibilities that open offers, are manifest only when two or more humans work together. After all, where is the power in open source if only one person ever sees the source code? Where is the power in transparency if only one person is making decisions?
Collaboration is powerful—not openness. So the answer to the question, “What is open?” is simple: “Open” is a methodology for optimizing collaboration—a way of structuring information, data and work in such a way that the potential for meaningful collaboration is maximized.
This raises another question, though: Why should we maximize collaboration? Why collaborate at all? Collaboration is cumbersome, time-consuming, and often not very satisfying. Does it really offer a return on that investment?
In short, yes.
Decades ago, even before the Internet was born, in a time when computers were just being weaned off their punch cards, one of the 20th century’s most visionary writers, Peter Drucker, announced the coming of the Knowledge Society.
The Knowledge Society, Drucker argued, defined a new economic dynamic whereby the capital upon which industries were built—that is, knowledge—was necessarily and irrevocably transferred to workers.
In investing in a knowledge worker, then, you’re laying the foundations for a return, but not guaranteeing one. Unlike an investment in a machine that you own, your investment in a knowledge worker can walk out the door at any time.
Collaboration, then, becomes a hedge against the risk of losing your investment to the competition. To really get your money’s worth, the workers in which you are investing need to be working in teams with workers in which you’re not investing. The synergy among these teams—the emergent, added value—creates a more reliable return on your investment in a knowledge worker.
Challenges in a knowledge-driven world
Collaboration is far from new. The history of human enterprise could equally be considered a history in human collaboration. From the first tribes to realize there was strength in numbers all the way to today’s massive governments, corporations, multinationals and consortia, collaboration has been central to our progress on Earth.
How, then, is today’s collaboration different? In a word, context.
For all the centuries of human civilization, collaboration has been focused internally on the goals of each specific group of collaborators. This is natural and fine when scale is small. Now, though, we’re scaling up—fast.
For the first time, the borders that we’ve created to define friend and foe—political, organizational and ideological boundaries—are vanishing, and we’re beginning to align around goals that capture the complex interactions of our world as a whole. We’re beginning to think in systems (see Systems Thinking for Social Change, by David Peter Stroh for more on this).
The reorientation of society from traditionally narrow framing—that is, the viewing of our enterprise in the specific context of the organization to which we belong—to whole-system framing that includes considerations for our impact on, and opportunities from, other parts of the system is an important advancement for the context of our collaboration. It brings with it a number of advantages, including a much larger pool of productive resources from which to draw, the natural synergy of a diversified system, and massive potential gains from economies of scale.
But there are undeniable challenges, too: Collaboration in the 21st century is increasingly distant and anonymous as more workers participate remotely across geographies and timezones. This makes creating the strong community bonds that tend to yield high-functioning collaborative teams more difficult. Meaningful communication and effective alignment are both much more difficult across larger groups of participants as well, and agreeing on even the most trivial matters quickly becomes impossible. Trust suffers as familiarity among members wanes, and agility diminishes in light of the burden of the decision-making process.
Just as new challenges have emerged in a world of large-scale collaboration, though, so, too, have new solutions. “Open” is one of those solutions.
While we have yet to fully explore what makes “open” effective, there are already a few ideas emerging. Let’s take a look at some of the ways that openness can make a practical difference in collaborative environments.
Trust is one of the foundational elements of all human relationships, and collaborative relationships are no exception. The dynamics of trust in teamwork are relatively simple: you’re applying your efforts and labor to something you believe in. When you work alone, you can guarantee that you’ve optimized your work for that goal as best you can. When you work in a team, however, the bets are off.
If you trust your teammates fully—that is, if you know who they are and what they’re working for—then you can know that your efforts are directed at goals you can be proud of. When doubts about teammates’ motives and goals emerge, however, you begin to lose energy to assessing those doubts and their potential impact on your goals.
An easy solution for this is transparency—a characteristic of openness. Certain pieces of information can help to quickly secure the trust of other teammates. Admittedly, this information is somewhat subjective and varies from team to team, but at a minimum, it would probably include who is funding the work you’re doing, how the project fits into your ultimate goals and the goals of your funders, and maybe even how much they’re paying you.
This is not just any old information; it’s information that can help to support (or refute) the narrative that you’ve presented to the team as your reason for contributing. Thus, being open about why you’re doing what you’re doing is fundamental to building a team that works quickly and efficiently.
Similarly foundational to collaboration is communication, and this is another area where openness can help. For example, simply publishing a roadmap for the work you’re doing personally (or your list of to-dos in the event that it’s a small project) can help people understand your vision for the project and why you’re doing what you’re doing. This relatively simple, passive communication can solve many problems, including overlaps and system design issues that arise from misaligned visions.
Furthermore, opening up the decision-making process regarding a project’s next steps can drastically change the dynamics of the team. It creates buy-in and empowerment, rather than antagonism and disengagement.
These are not just superficial improvements in the way it feels to work on a project. Better alignment and personal drive create concrete gains in the speed and quality of the work, too, and in some cases can mean the difference between a project living and dying.
Adopting open communication policies—both active and passive—will ensure that teams remain fully aligned and in sync.
Empowerment is one of the more difficult elements to achieve in a modern team. Yet again, openness is an obvious part of the way toward truly empowered teammates.
To make good decisions, you need good and complete information. Traditionally, CEOs and other team leads made all of the decisions because they were high enough to see down into the silos of information various departments maintained. They had access to the quarterly budget, for example, and they knew the customer service calendar, or they knew that the marketing team was planning a big new campaign.
The key to true, effective empowerment, then, is to allow all members of a team access to all of the information. With the right training and access to all of the necessary information, most team members can make the right decisions most of the time, significantly improving the speed and efficacy of the team and reducing the need for bureaucratic involvement.
“Open” is certainly the buzzword of 2016, appearing in business conferences, books, newspaper articles, blogs, and even on the agendas of some important charitable foundations.
All this buzz may have created a bit of a bubble around it, though. It’s important to remember that, for as glittery and idealistic as the concept of an Open world can be, open is still just a tool—a way of structuring information, data and work in such a way that the potential for meaningful collaboration is maximized. And like all tools, there are more and less appropriate places to use it.
Open is powerful and open is beautiful, but if you happen not to care about those things, then open is still practical. Keep it in your toolbag for when you might need it.