I was fortunate enough last week to be able to meet briefly with Stephen Walli of Optaros and have a great conversation that covered a number of different open source topics. Besides illustrating the connective power of blogs (I only know Stephen through his, and vice versa), one of the most interesting subjects was that of persuading enterprises – not software vendors, but enterprises – to contribute back to open source. It’s an important question, of course, for Optaros as their business is around services for open source products.
But I think it’s going to be a question of increasing importance to enterprises everywhere, as they begin to consume open source projects across the board, because inevitably some of their bright people will be faced with the question of contributing back some of their fixes or enhancements, or maintaining them as company IP.
The key, as Stephen and I discussed, is making open source into a Win/Win for the enterprise. Probably everyone reading this space knows the ins and outs of open source, but I’m continually surprised at how that awareness lags within enterprises large and small, who remain convinced that proprietary development is the only sustainable approach. How to get around that conservative mindset? Make it a Win/Win.
As an example, I’m reminded of one of the more clever tactics that came out of the environmentalist camp, which is emphasizing the economics of water conservation, rather than the corporate citizenship aspects. Anybody who’s stayed in a hotel recently has probably seen the signs in their room that talk about conserving water and asking guests to explicitly request new linens and sheets during their stay – the default is reuse. Did this result from a mass conversion amongst hoteliers to sustainable and ecofriendly business practices? Hardly. Hotels are focused on the bottom line: being “ecofriendly” means decreased laundering and water costs for their locations, with the PR bump as a nice if slight peripheral benefit.
This sort of lesson is one that open source advocates within enterprises should take to heart; appeal to the business bottom line. Whether it’s the possibility of receiving new features for free or the costs of reintegrating fixes to open source projects, make open source a Win/Win for businesses, and you’ll find that making them good community citizens will be far, far easier.