March 27th, 2009

Mental Models of Commerce and Community

Commerce and community play important roles in open source ecosystems. Companies are great at building capital and targeting it towards focused goals through products and services. Communities are great at bringing together like-minded people from all walks of life and advancing their common ideals. Together, commerce and community can be an unstoppable force for turning a shared vision into reality.

That’s not to say that this dynamic duo of collaboration is always guaranteed to materialize. It takes a sufficient level of trust and mutual understanding, and a willingness to work through contentious situations with common goals in mind. I find that the mental models that people have about commerce and community substantially influence the potential value that they can realize through these interactions.

FUD Model

At the low end of trust and understanding is what I characterize as the FUD model — marked by Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. Here, cynicism and defensive thinking loom large. Companies are seen as soulless entities whose only reason for existence is to exploit anything and anyone to make money. Everything that a company does is viewed through this lens. For example, if a company makes an open source contribution and dares to say anything positive about it, they are subjected to an often tortured analysis that explains how their actions are really only about increasing sales with a particular demographic, blocking a competitor, casting out for free labor, or some other exclusively self-serving motive. Simpler explanations that involve corporate employees sharing a common vision with a broader community and wanting to accomplish goals beneficial both to their company and to the community are rejected outright.

Things are just as harsh in the other direction. Community members are seen mostly as naive hobbyists whose heads are in the clouds, and who couldn’t possibly be reliable because they’re not being paid to do anything. And the rest are a threat — potential or actual competitors just lying in wait to take away business or sue over any perceived infringements. The idea that a company could rely on leadership provided by the community to achieve breakthrough results is unimaginable.

Utilitarian Model

In the middle of the spectrum is the Utilitarian model. It sees past the overt cynicism of the FUD model and adopts a pragmatic mindset. It understands the conventionally-defined roles of commerce and community, and works within the limits of these boundaries. For example, enterprises adopt open source if it saves them money. Open source needs to have a business model as close as possible to that of proprietary software in order to gain customer acceptance. Open Source developers need to be managed with similar kinds of incentives and metrics to those used with proprietary software developers. A company’s success is measured by its revenue, a project’s potency by the number of lines of code.

Along with conventional wisdom, this model is often a purveyor of political correctness. For example, corporations have a burden to “give back to the open source community” as compensation for having “taken” something, independent of the observation that downloading and using open source software actually increases its ambit. Another case is where communities are pushed to develop certification schemes to assess expertise, irrespective of whether those are germane to success.

The Utilitarian model is successful at mapping the terrain and carefully working within its boundaries. The downside is that it is not inclined to challenge and expand those boundaries. People are fairly ensconced within their roles, and aren’t primed to seize creative and unconventional opportunities. Assumptions of how “corporate people” or “community people” are expected to behave can limit the recognition of teaching moments and keep people within boxes. There is also a real risk of dampening genuine passion and energy with saccharine substitutes.

Visionary Model

At the high end is the Visionary model. It sees that commerce and community each have important parts to play in realizing a shared vision. It views people holistically, as self-actualizing individuals whose journey may take them through various corporate and community roles — sometimes holding multiple roles simultaneously. These people are able to work fluidly in different contexts, tapping resources and insights from wherever is most helpful — like making use of blogs or wikis in a corporate environment, or applying project management principles with community activities. Neither calculation nor charity is an unbalancing influence on their consumption of and contribution to open source. It’s a far more natural, conversational rhythm like listening and speaking.

The Visionary model champions high levels of openness, transparency and candor as a matter of course, surpassing anything attainable by the FUD model or the Utilitarian model. There is an unshakable confidence in the power of openness to deliver innovation while developing trust. For example, a services company might share in-depth market intelligence on key customers whose adoption would put an open source project on the map in a big way. Knowing this, the community might rally to complete the development of key features, and through their contacts help the services company sign up the customers. The customers might then collaborate with each other, through the community, to make further improvements and continue the virtuous cycle.

With its broadminded perspective, the Visionary model is optimistic and resilient in the face of impediments. It’s able to protect its interests without getting trapped in the cynicism of the FUD model, and can make strategic withdrawals without surrendering to the limits of the Utilitarian model. It can make the most out of situations where an ideal solution isn’t possible.

The Visionary model holds the greatest promise for the partnership of commerce and community. It is able to navigate the shadows of conflict, and forge a strong framework for excellence.

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