There’s a strange kernel to this post. Recently I posted something about Agile error messages, and Kevin Marks, while talking to me about it, took me on a tangential journey to a post at chuqui 3.0, headlined Why Do Businesses Shy Away From Open Source? [If you have the time, take a wander round Chuqui. Chuq van Rospach seems an interesting guy; and any blog with a tagline saying "And I'll keep reinventing myself until I get it right" has got to be worth a read. Thanks for the heads-up, Kevin].
Here are a few quotes from the Chuq post:
- Open source requires you, as a manager of IT, or as a staffer, or as the CIO, to be willing to commit to being responsible for fixing a problem, and therefore, be responsible for the problem itself.
- The support contract is not about fixing the problem. The support contract is about allowing you to shift responsibility for the problem. It is the tool that allows you to go (as the IT person, manager or organization) to the customer, or your manager, or the CIO, or the VP of whatever organization is pissed at you for the problem, and say “we’re doing everything I can, but we can’t fix it until we hear back from the vendor”.
And that got me thinking hard about the importance of accountability. I’ve always felt that rights come with duties, power with vulnerability, empowerment with responsibility. Something to do with my upbringing, I guess. There’s nothing original about it, it’s been half a century since Peter Drucker maintained that organisational change was about accountability, not empowerment. Which is why organisations find it so hard to change; many “organisation men” learn to survive by wearing Teflon, nothing ever sticks. Empowerment without accountability. A very dangerous combination.
I’d never considered the possibility that people would try and patent software; the Drucker reader in me couldn’t see how anyone could claim the rights of “patent” without the duties of “fit-for-purpose”. Unless the software always did what it was supposed to do, and unless you could sue for damages when it didn’t, I couldn’t see software as patentable. Rights without duties. Dangerous.
While thinking about all this, I recalled a seminal article on the subject by Helen Nissenbaum over a decade ago, well worth a read. [I managed to find the reference, but it's hidden behind a paywall. An ACM paywall. Oh well. You can find the abstract here, and if you have an ACM account, you can get to the whole thing via the same link. Incidentally, Nissenbaum, who used to be at Princeton, is now at NYU and writes some very interesting stuff on trust and identity].
Nissenbaum argued that computers were actually removing accountability, and wrote eloquently about the unfairness of rights and ownership without liability or responsibility. I didn’t agree with every detail in her arguments, particularly when she seemed to assert that collaboration and teamwork reduces accountability. But what she said stuck with me.
And it was only years later that I realised she was right. The way we used to work, in vendor-lock-in worlds, did remove accountability. But it wasn’t the teamwork that did it, it was the vendor-lock. IT departments tended to shift responsibility (and blame) to the vendor, because they could. In fact sometimes they had no choice and felt cool about it, a weird variant of Stockholm Syndrome.
In an opensource world there’s no place to hide. You take responsibility. You’re naked in front of your peers. And you behave responsibly because of that peer pressure, aided and abetted by the motivation you get from peer respect and recognition.
So maybe there’s something about opensource I’d never considered before:
- I’d bought the Given Enough Eyeballs All Bugs Are Shallow argument
- I could touch the value of Free as in FreedomÂ
- I could see the democratised innovation and emergence and serendipity payoffs
- I’d understood the function flexing and future-proofing and cycle time advantages.
- I could work out the “outsource your maintenance costs” value.
- I could even appreciate the “you attract talent because of open source, not with it” benefit.
But I’d never considered the Opensource Makes You Responsible concept.
Until I’d read Chuqui’s post. [Thanks, Chuq]
Unless we feel responsible and accountable, we don’t build Right First Time. Unless we feel responsible and accountable, we don’t consider the Customer Experience. Unless we do that, there is no emotional asset transfer. And business (as Drucker so beautifully put it) is about attracting and retaining customers, nothing else.
So become responsible. Use opensource. Not just as a tool or an enabler, but as a mindset.Â