Open source communities: Who's in charge?

world | Nov 19, 2007 | By Spero News

In our knowledge-based society, communities of knowledge sharing and production are increasingly common. The communities typically bring together geographically dispersed members who depend upon the Internet for communication and coordination. While the members do not share a common employer or workplace, they integrate their individual contributions into a common pool. Though there are many communities out there, producing all kinds of scientific and general knowledge and even art, "open source communities" commonly refer to groups that band together to develop a source code of software, which is available to the general public and has not one source but many "open" sources. The community creates informal and formal social structures to manage membership.

Scholars understand a great deal about how bureaucratic organizations work, but they know a lot less about how open source communities govern themselves. For a better understanding, Siobhán O'Mahony, Assistant Professor at the University of California's Graduate School of Management, and Fabrizio Ferraro, General Management Professor at IESE, joined together to study how one open source community, called Debian, could shed light on the rest.

Debian was selected as the model open source community for its long tenure and leadership turnover, which exposed it to governance issues that occur only over time. In just 13 years, the community had nine different leaders.

Debian is a free operating system - a set of basic programs and utilities that make computers run - that uses the Linux kernel developed by Linus Torvalds. The kernel is the most fundamental program on the computer that manages demands on system resources: It allows you to run multiple programs simultaneously. According to industry analysts, Debian has 25 percent of the market for Linux distribution, second only to Red Hat distribution. Over 1,000 Debian community members in 40 countries contribute to the development of the Debian Linux distribution (which comprises over 9,000 packages of code). While the Debian community does not sell the code it produces, over 150 vendors commercially distribute the project's software. In return, Debian receives corporate support and equipment donations from at least 10 firms, two of which are Fortune 500 companies.

To find out how Debian governs itself, the researchers examined how the open source community designed and implemented a governance system over a 13-year period, using qualitative and quantitative data. They broke the time frame into four distinct phases: De facto Governance, Designing Governance, Implementing Governance and Stabilizing Governance. The paper shows how the community transitioned from a de facto governance model to one that integrated positional authority with directly democratic means. It then traces how community members subsequently interpreted different conceptions of authority.

In Phase I, under a de facto governance system (1993-1997), the founder of Debian considered contributors' opinions but had the final say on project decisions. When the founder transferred power to a trusted lieutenant, Debian members misinterpreted the new leader's more expansive concept of leadership, and autocratic leadership failed. When Debian members entered the second phase of designing governance (1997-1999), they focused on both developing and limiting a positional basis of authority that could be checked by democratic means. However, translating governance design into practice (1999-2003) introduced much interpretation and variation as to the level of authority appropriate for a project leader, since democracy encouraged variety. After four years of implementation, a new concept of authority emerged in 2003 - Organizational Leadership. This year marked a transition to a shared conception of authority and a period of stabilized governance, which survived a cru



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