Open source style organisations are challenging traditional ideas of how and why we work together.
Open Work Edit
Seb Potter is a pasty pale young man who eats too much take-away food and spends far too much time at his computer. He programmed his first computer at the age of eight and has not stopped since. Potter is an unlikely looking organisational revolutionary: baggy jeans, skater T-shirt, trainers. There is no reason why executives in large organisations should take any note of him. Yet the way Seb Potter works says something about how jobs are evolving which even large and conservative organisations will eventually have to take note of. I met Potter in a pokey conference room in a run down and over-crowded building in Brighton where Get Frank, the web development company he works for, is crammed into two tiny rooms, with developers working cheek by jowl, the office cluttered with bikes and workstations. It looks more like a student flat. Perhaps it should be no surprise that radical organisational innovation would start in marginal and overlooked places such as this and not in the work pods of the corporate mainstream.
Potter got involved in open source software development as a student in 1998, when he helped to launch an online community called Evolt to bring together amateur and professional web developers. Evolt started with 24 online collaborators who had never met face-to-face, but started to converse with one another, through a discussion group hosted by a magazine website. Frustrated by the magazine’s new owners’ plans for the website, they decided to create their own alternative to share ideas. Potter recalled: “It was really very simple. We just exchanged emails and agreed it was a good thing to do. We divided up the tasks among ourselves, depending on who could do what and within a month we had a fully functioning website which people could visit to get tips and advice to make life easier if you were developing a web site. We just wanted to make it easier for people to solve web development problems they faced.”
When the community got started contributors would vote on what should go on the site, using email. By 2001 the site had 3,000 signed up members, and Potter and co decided it needed a more formal system of committees, to oversee different aspects of its work. Occasionally members would get together face-to-face in a London pub for a “beer-volt.” Once a year there was a big conference. A couple of the original community members got married. By 2004 the Evolt community had 7,000 contributing members worldwide. “Most people hear about Evolt because they’ve got a problem to solve,” Potter explained. “If you go onto Google and type in ‘web development problem solving’ Evolt comes close to the top of the list. The more people who get involved adds to the number of questions that get asked and the amount of knowledge that gets generated in the shared knowledge base.”
GetFrank encourages Potter works for, encourages him to spend at least a quarter of his work time involved in these open source projects because the company gets access to software they could never afford to develop on their own. Frank Byford, GetFrank’s founder explained: “We are very small so open source software gives a small company like us access to a potentially massive research and development capacity. It makes R & D affordable for small companies who collaborate.” For Potter, though, the motivation for his open source work is far more personal: “I love problem solving and if you are into software then pretty much the only way you can do that is to get involved in open source projects because proprietary systems are closed. Open source communities judge you on the ideas you have and the contributions you make not on what you look like. If you have good ideas you get recognised.”
Traditional companies find it almost impossible to tap into the passion and imagination of people like Seb Potter. That is why open source communities are going to change the way we work, in all organisations, even those quite unlike these communities. As Potter puts it: “For me work is the oddity. Work is a kind of compromise. I feel most myself when I am doing this open source stuff. When I am doing this and give it my full attention then everything else around me fades away and I become completely focussed.” Most managers in large companies can only dream of creating a work environment like the one the Evolt community seems to have created, without design and almost by accident. How can a group of 7,000 people work together, sharing out tasks, building up a knowledge base, set of tools and services, without needing an office, a management hierarchy, a knowledge management programme or an organisation chart? Seen from within the walls of the traditional organisation it does not make sense. But in time these open approaches to work will become the new common sense. They will expose just how odd, distorted, dysfunctional and unpleasant it is to work for large corporations.