Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Managing sponsored open source communities

Sponsoring open source projects is a tricky matter. On the one hand, if people don’t feel like their participation matters, they won’t get involved. On the other hand, the firm paying to do the sponsorship wants to make a buck from its investment.

Four years ago, Siobhán O’Mahony and I sat down to try to explain how sponsored open source projects are different from their independent (or community-managed) counterparts. The result was a conference paper we submitted in June 2004 (published in a conference proceedings January 2005) that was one of the first (if not the first) to draw attention to how sponsored projects were different from the independent variety.

That 2005 paper was the subject of a blog posting earlier this month by Roberto Galoppini. (I must admit, I can’t keep up with all the open source blogs, but for the economics of open source Roberto’s blog seems to be right up there with the one by Matt Asay).

Like anyone, I appreciate the mention and the kind words about our work. However, it’s a little embarrassing, because that 2005 paper is an early draft of thinking that progressed a lot over the next three and a half years. A newer (and much better) version of the paper was published in April 2008 in a special issue of Industry and Innovation on the topic of online communities and open innovation.

The final title makes concrete the idea articulated by Tim O’Reilly of the importance of “The Architecture of Participation”:

I won’t pretend to summarize 11,000 words and four years of research in a one-screen blog posting. However, the meat of the paper can be found in two places.

First, we talk about two types of openness: transparency (letting others watch) and accessibility (letting others have a say). (In an earlier draft of the paper, we used “permeability” instead of “accessibility,” and the former term was also used by Dahlander et al in their introduction to the special issue).

Here is a quote from the introduction:
In designing a community, sponsors were more likely to offer transparency than they were to offer accessibility to external community members. We found that sponsors faced a control vs. growth tension. To leverage the ability of communities to contribute to their firm’s bottom line, sponsors sought to maintain control over the community’s strategic direction. However, sponsors soon discovered that by restricting access to community processes, they limited their community’s ability to attract new members and grow.
Secondly, we mapped these two types of openness onto three forms of control: control of production, governance of decision making, and ownership of the IP. These ideas are summarized in Table 2 below:

Form of Openness
Proprietary Model

Dimension of Participation Architecture
Production – the way that the community conducts production processes Ability to read code and observe or follow production processes Ability to change code directly Production remains within a single corporation
Governance – the processes by which decisions are made within the community Publicly visible governance, observers can understand how decisions are made Ability to participate in governance The corporation makes all decisions at its own discretion
Intellectual Property – The allocation of rights to use the community’s output Rights to use code and access source code Ability to reuse and recombine code in the creation of derivative code Limited use rights are granted by the corporation for a licensing fee

Personally, I think the meat of the paper is in Table 3, which talks about the specific trade-offs made across the various independent and sponsored projects. But I’m hoping that others will find value throughout the 38 pages.

People who find this paper interesting may also want to read two other papers:
Update July 17: I thought I’d posted about this article earlier, but didn’t find the earlier mention until after I’d written this blog entry. Apologies for the duplication.