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What outsourcers can learn from open-source communities

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols | Nov. 10, 2008
Enterprises using outsourcing for their programming needs could stand to learn some management and process techniques from the open-source community.

Control and Motivation Problems--and Solutions

Another challenge common to both open-source and outsourcing scenarios is control, Lyman says. Executives at open-source vendors have the challenge of motivating and steering individuals and groups that are not necessarily motivated primarily by money. "I think there is a similar challenge in a global outsourcing development community, wherein there is less or no direct contact with members of that community and control is more difficult. Open-source communities have also illustrated how too much control can breed discontentment or stifle innovation," says Lyman.

Stormy Peters, executive director of the GNOME Foundation, says that the lessons the outsourcing developer community could learn from open source apply to any virtual team--starting with the preferred toolset. Peters explains, "Open source software projects tend to rely on e-mail, mailing lists and IRC (Internet Relay Chat). This gives them a lot of advantages not available to teams that work primarily by meeting, phone calls and e-mail." By using mailing lists and IRC, says Peters, open-source software projects gain:

-- Transparency. All decisions and the discussions that led to them are public. Who gets what responsibility and why is also visible.

-- Meritocracy. Everyone knows who is doing what and how well they are doing.

-- Empowerment. Everyone has a voice. Anyone can join IRC or the mailing list.

-- History. The entire project history and status are available to anyone.

-- Fewer time zone issues. Since the history is in IRC and mailing lists, people can catch up and join in when they are awake, whenever and where ever that may be.

-- Language and culture issues. "I think e-mail is less of a language issue than voice can be," Peters says. "I also think the community is very understanding of people who are working hard to express themselves well in English, perhaps because many, many in the community are working in their second language."

Think your development team could use any of those attributes?

Peters concluded, "I think because people are so empowered, they are less likely to give up when they don't get an answer. They are motivated and feel empowered to find answers so getting silence for a day or two (on one channel) is a roadblock but not a dead end."

That alone should get outsourcing companies' attention. All too often, outsourced projects have abrupt starts and stops. Switching to an open-source style asynchronous communications approach may be just what's needed to get a project on time and on budget rather than floating around with a vague due date.

Don't Take The Analogy Too Far

Of course, an important fundamental difference between open-source developers and outsourced developers is motivation. As Dan Kusnetzky, well-known analyst and president of the Kusnetzky Group, says, "The open source community is driven by irritation. People get irritated over what a piece of code can and can't do and apply their efforts to fix things. Outsourced developers do exactly what they're told, the way they're told to do it, even if they know that the results will be less than optimal."


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