Business family, open source community

To truly make an open source project a community project, a business has to completely let go of it, and recognize that it may go in unexpected directions, directions which don't embrace the business' vision, which may in fact run counter to it.

Family Business, by Rob Dunlavey for Oregon State University Terra
Matt Asay wants Red Hat to make its Spacewalk project a true community. (Illustration by Rob Dunlavey for an Oregon State story on family businesses.)

That's a noble goal. But what I've observed over the last few years is there is a big difference between the noble goals of community and what many businesses want.

Many businesses want family, not community. The difference between the two  is stark. In a family everyone is close-knit and goals are clear. Businesses often talk of their employees as a "family," and it's not just jargon -- it has meaning.

A successful business family has clear goals. Growth. Profit. Everything is geared into that narrow channel. When we talk of a strong "corporate culture," that's what we're talking about, shared values, shared goals, and a single vision directed from the top.

A community is different. A community is raucous, and the people in it have all sorts of goals. Profit is one goal, growth is one goal, but everyone in fact has their own goals. Loyalties are looser, and political skills are required to direct it anywhere.

To truly make an open source project a community project, a business has to completely let go of it, and recognize that it may go in unexpected directions, directions which don't embrace the business' vision, which may in fact run counter to it.

I think many businesspeople intuit this. It's where the resistance to many open source projects comes from. But it's also behind business' embrace of business-oriented projects, like Eclipse and (I would assert) Red Hat. Maybe (dare I say it) Alfresco.)

I think Sun wants its projects to be business families, not wide-open communities. That's where profit lies, when everyone is dedicated to profit as the first goal. That's also where resistance to it and suspicion of it lie.

Community activists demand that letting-go, business families seek a common vision and common purpose.

Which works best? This remains an open question. The answer depends on what motivates you, and whether you're willing to let your motivation be secondary to some more direct, profit-making purpose.

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