Open Source Communities as Social Business in Action

By Cheryl McKinnon posted 09-13-2011 07:21


While some goals and aspirations of Social Business seem new to many organizations, they are not new in the software world. The fundamentals of a successful open source development project are often identical to the goals identified by “Enterprise 2.0” or “Social Enterprise” champions.

  • Transparent and collaborative work
  • Engaging distributed teams across geographies and timezones
  • Celebration of contribution regardless of title or background
  • Innovative use of online technologies to communicate and share content
  • Rules of engagement and moderation
  • Peer to peer help, mentoring, knowledge management and preservation of corporate memory

While most readers of the AIIM Expert blogs are not programmers, there is value in digging into how open and collaborative software development projects work. We can identify and document common practices that can be applied to any type of professional online community.

Over the last few weeks, I've had some great conversations and listened to some brilliant speakers talk about community management in open source. The amazing Clay Shirky delivered a keynote at least month's LinuxCon. Shirky used the term “structured fighting” label to describe community. A successful community is not a lovefest or fanboi club; it is a group of users and developers who have skin in the game. As coders, bug reporters, beta testers, translators or proofreaders. Civilization – as well as good technology – “comes from more people pooling resources in new ways”, according to Shirky. “After arguing about it for a really long time”, he added.

Schulich School of Business PhD candidate Mekki MacAulay presented some of his research on "community" at a recent developer conference I attended. He described some his findings after an extensive survey of community leaders across several open source software projects. He focused on the density of community (ie, the balance between core developers and more peripheral observers) and the factors that “pushed” or “pulled” participation levels.

Some practices, according to MacAulay are adaptive, meaning that they change in order to attract or accommodate new participants or scenarios. Other practices are recursive, meaning the tendency is to stick with existing procedures even when new situations or challenges are faced. The research findings described how each type of practice resulted in a change in community density: pulling more people from periphery into core contributor mode, or pushing them away from it. These are practices that could fit in any knowledge management primer. Cultivation of mentorship, the communication of tradition, inclusiveness, offering a range of participation options, encouraging apprenticeship, celebrating innovation: all characteristics of successful communities.

After digesting the theoretical, I wanted to get some validation from the real world. Nicolas Pastorino manages the community for eZ Publish, an open source web content management product. He's blogged recently about his vision of community engagement, role of the manager, and how success can be measured. When we talked about community in the open source software space, once again it was clear that these goals are universal to any purposeful group of collaborators. Pastorino sees his mission as that as enabler, communicator, information broker across a very diverse group of developers and web content specialists. Goals for a community manager include:

  • Speeding up the learning curve for new participants
  • Creating guides and tutorials for contributors at both beginner and advanced levels
  • Defining meaningful reputation and participation metrics for members
  • Supporting local user groups and in-person activities
  • Setting engagement measurements and goals to monitor community health and activity
  • Ensuring diverse users can find and subscribe to specific content through a variety of channels (discussion forums, mailing lists, RSS, Twitter, IRC, blog posts, GitHub).

Communication, facilitation, moderation, building connections and relationships: core functions of a community manager in any area of business, but found pervasively in the world of open source. Organizations wanting to practice social business and really embrace the community, owe it to themselves to understand the successful tactics used by open source projects.

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