Open source can innovate even beyond software

Open Source as catalyst for innovation and business cultural change

Open source, it seems, is not just a great way to develop code. It's a way to build better code and launch new ideas that can ultimately ripple throughout the business world.

Following up on last week's innovation discussion I had a chance to talk with Andrew Aitken, Founder and Senior VP of the Olliance Group on the notion of Open Source as a catalyst for innovation, not just a software development model. I know, heady stuff, right? But Aitken's work on advocating open source in the California government and his lead role for the Open Source Think Tank qualifies him as one of those smart fellers that one should really chat with about FLOSS once in a while.

Independent of my twitter-sation last week with The 451 Group's Jay Lyman, Aitken was part of a webinar put on last week by his employer Black Duck Software with Yahoo!'s Director of Open Source, Gil Yehuda, which covered Open Source as a catalyst for innovation and cultural change in the workplace. So it made sense for Aitken to get in touch with me, since my conclusions from Lyman's comments were in sync with what his webinar was talking about.

Aitken outlined that he and his team were seeing innovation as a driving force for open source implementations, too, with "more momentum and more planned interest," he explained.

The "planned" is an important distinction. Business and IT leaders aren't just looking to start a software project and then later saying hey, let's just open source this thing; these leaders are actually coming up with ideas that depend on the tools and benefits for open source development right from the start.

This shift is a big deal, Aitken added, because now we are seeing prominent closed-source entities who are using open source to launch new products and projects within their organizations.

The reason for this change may be a natural evolution in the open source maturity model. As individuals and corporations move up the maturity curve from consumption of open source software to contribution to open source software, they can see a lot more potential for innovating new ideas with open source software in ways they could not do or would be hampered by with proprietary software.

This means, Aitken explained, that "it's not just technology vendors working with open source, but now IT end users, as well." End users are looking around at these open source tools and are asking "can I contribute and make this code better?"

Aitken made sure to note that he is seeing this kind of change in companies by the dozens, rather than the thousands--for now. But as open source moves from a tactic to a strategic tool, it will become an integral part of technology and perhaps have an impact outside of technology, too.

Imagine taking technology out of the picture for a second and say you have a business that needs to hire open source developers. How does HR work with those developers? How does Legal? If you distribute a product that's created in any way using open source software, how is procurement handled, or the supply chain as a whole?

Now you have a situation, Aitken stated, where the open source methodology creates ripple effects out to areas in the company that were heretofore unaffected. How does that change the business as a whole?

We already see areas in business that emphasize collaboration as the be-all end-all way to create and innovate, so the practices of open source development will fit right in there. Within businesses and without, open source seems to be taking root as a philosophy for getting things done. Aitken cited the GreenXchange, an IP-sharing initiative launched by Best Buy, Creative Commons, and Nike in 2010 designed to reduce the overhead of technology transfer for environmentally helpful ideas. This project is directly driven by the open source ethos, Aitken said.

The examples continue to appear: OpenLaw and the Open Prosthetics Project are two such projects Aitken highlighted that are innovating with open source.

As open source continues to advance along the maturity model, it will be very interesting to see just how far into business and societal practices it can possibly go.

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