The paradigm of the open organization


Forget now about labels and conventions: there is not such thing as free software, like there is not such thing as free speech. There are free developers and free speakers, and they are the ones setting the limits of freedom of their products and actions. If they are not free, how free can be the result of their actions?

The license and contribution policy of a piece of open source software might tell something about how free it is. What is really useful though is to look at the levels of openness and freedom in the organization that develops, integrates and distributes that code.

How open is an organization? Consider this checklist as a barometer:


  • Clear mission – Full disclosed objectives.
  • Declared commitments – Affinities and aversions explained.
  • Explicit connections outside – Relationships with other organizations listed.


  • Horizontal organization – Teams and facilitators work on responsibilities and agreements.
  • Identified contributors – Who is who, people is reachable.
  • Clear responsibilities – Who is in charge or what.
  • Activities described – All the ongoing work is acknowledged.


  • Open participation – Anybody can access the information and get a first responsibility.
  • Meritocracy – Responsibilities are acquired (or lost) based on own skills and contributors’ support.
  • Voluntary (non-)engagement – Nobody is forced to be involved or to keep responsibilities.


  • Regular reports – Reported activities and future plans allow monitoring and participation.
  • Information accessible – Even internal operational information is available by default.
  • Explicit confidentiality – It is explained what areas are confidential, why and who access them.


  • Economic model – Feasibility and sustainability plans are exposed.
  • Resources – Inventory of items detailing who contributed what and why.
  • Public accounts – It’s clear where the money comes from and where it goes.

How was your rating?

All this came to mind because it is in the organizational setting where the average corporation collides with the average open source community, and compromises need to be made from both sides. The result in many cases is the creation of a third way picking elements from both contexts, like maemo today. How open is maemo? How open could and should it be?

The debate about Sun trying to do the right thing has jumped to maemo and is evolving interestingly. Nokia is also trying to do the right thing, but this is a topic for another day. I just wanted to share an old text I wrote five years ago and never got the time to translate to English: El paradigma de la organización abierta.

Image by researchexchange (some rights reserved)

12 Responses to “The paradigm of the open organization”

  1. 1 The Badger

    Sun seems to get a lot of criticism of late from Novell employees with regard to project governance, and Sun certainly walk a fine line: GPL’d code and hardware on the one hand, apparent incoherence about patents on the other. Novell seems hell-bent on dragging their reputation through the mud with alliances with Microsoft, yet does seem to have a coherent patent policy. Meanwhile, IBM seems to have an active role in open source projects and seems to get the governance thing, yet has lobbied for extended patentability and is one of the most prolific patent office customers.

    If Nokia were a genuinely open organisation, it’d try and get all of these things right by being a member of the community, not the feudal lord exercising “special rights” by (for example) coercing developers to transfer copyright (Sun) or by holding patents without a patent promise (Nokia), or by undermining the wider community by lobbying for software patents (Nokia, IBM). The difference between Sun’s behaviour and certain other companies is that you can always fork Sun’s code and set up shop elsewhere – it doesn’t help Sun build a community, but it doesn’t stop you from building your own, either. The shadow of software patents is quite another matter.

    You raise lots of interesting questions with this article, but I wonder how your quest inside Nokia is coming along, since I imagine that the list of links that I posted previously, documenting some “interesting” corporate practices, must have been useful even if you chose not to share them with the rest of your readership.

  2. 2 qgil

    Making Nokia “a genuinely open organisation” is beyond the point. maemo perhaps, this would be flesh for another post.

    I will go back to the patents issue as soon as there is something to explain. Where did you post what? I’m not censoring sensible comments. Perhaps the spam filter ate it, like it does with anything showing many links. Sorry, I will follow more closely the spam queue from now on.

  3. 3 The Badger

    I am sorry if I have attributed to malice what could be attributed to other factors. I sent a comment with some references to Nokia activities and it disappeared into a black hole. Upon trying to send it again, WordPress said “Duplicate comment detected; it looks as though you’ve already said that!” When trying to send it just now all I get is “discarded” on a blank page. Perhaps there were too many lines or characters in the comment.

    It commands respect that someone might publish critical or admonishing comments they receive on their own blog in order to promote some kind of discussion, and I respect the fact that you have done so. However, I’m not inclined to play musical chairs with Sherlock Holmes just so that I can point out the supposedly fictional lobbying activities of Nokia employees.

    As for the distinction between the openness of an organisation and that of a small part of it, which I imagine is why Nokia as a whole is “beyond the point”, I don’t think pockets of openness are sustainable in an organisation where the executives exchange puzzled looks when confronted with that part of the organisational chart. Personally, I wouldn’t want to work in a place where my own work is potentially being undermined by a bunch of people somewhere else in the same building, which is what you get with such arrangements which make mere concessions to openness.

    At some point, I might try again and post the things that were dug up on Nokia and lobbying, although none of it was stuff that hasn’t been aired in public before, nor would it take much digging for anyone motivated enough to discover such material all by themselves.

  4. 4 qgil

    What can I say? As you see from your own reply, leaves you lots of room for comments. Spam goes through with dozens of URLs. Perhaps do you have a too long URL? Try tinyurl if this is the case. Or try posting the URLs without the http://

    I didn’t want to discuss about Nokia in this post but you seem to have a fixed agenda. Fine, but look: Nokia is not in the business of opening or closing. Nokia is in the business of shipping products to the mainstream, and this is the reason why someone like me felt attracted to join a company like this. Undermining my work? There are not many companies of this size paying salaries to open source enthusiasts and making deals with open source companies (that hire more open source enthusiasts).

    The original point of my post is that big companies and small free software projects have very different organizational settings when it comes to openness (and many other things). This makes collaboration difficult. If you think it’s not worth or impossible to collaborate, then fair enough. If you, like me, think that collaboration between companies and open source projects is important then it is useful to see how these differences can be overcome.

    Now, if you could discuss about the points made in my initial post that would be excellent. Thanks for your time!

  5. 5 The Badger

    “I didn’t want to discuss about Nokia in this post but you seem to have a fixed agenda.”

    My “agenda” is that you’ve previously claimed that Nokia isn’t doing anything wrong with respect to the open source community (and software developers in general) and that any wrongdoing is, in any case, old news. There wasn’t apparently any way of pointing out the discrepancies between your account and things which have been happening in the wider world, although I think sanjo sums up a part of my “agenda” by saying this:

    “And I can see no official sign that their politics regarding this matter has changed.”

    Perhaps I didn’t need to bother trying to document this assertion after all, but here we go:

    “Now, if you could discuss about the points made in my initial post that would be excellent.”

    You tell us to look away from the licence and contribution policy of a project (which pretty much lie at the heart of some of Sun’s most publicised woes with and openSolaris) and to look at the transparency, and presumably the community integration in the project – whether, for example, outsiders get to the top of the tree and start calling the shots.

    I don’t disagree that transparency in the way a project is governed is a good thing, but it’s disingenuous to talk about things like transparency without considering the wider contract between the community and any involved corporate entity. The biggest problem that a project owned by single corporate entity has is credibility: as a developer I want to know if I can be bothered to work (potentially for free) for a company which is not benevolent to my interests but who will potentially want to sell my work under a proprietary licence.

    And that credibility issue brings in a lot more than just how transparent a project organisation is, including the very things you discard: the licence will turn away a lot of people for a start (openSolaris is far less interesting to me under the CDDL than under the GPL); the copyright assignment policy may cause people to wonder whether they’re not doing someone’s job for them (whereas submissions under a range of acceptable licences might not trigger the same suspicions); the trademark policy may alienate people who thought that they were supporting a movement that they identify with (as seen with openSolaris and Project Indiana); the patent policy might cause people to question whether by helping the corporate parent of the project, they might be endangering the rest of the community.

    You might wave these concerns away and say that they’re peripheral or not central to the discussion, but all I can do is remind you that you’re looking out from the inside of a big company wondering whether a big company project might be perceived to be open based on a number of factors that you’ve drawn up, and I’m looking in from the outside and telling you what motivates people in the community. And what motivates people in the community quite often has a lot to do with the things on my “agenda”, with credibility being a big part of it.

  6. 6 qgil

    Licenses and contribution policies don’t define an organization: organizations choose licenses and contribution policies. It is not a coincidence that more open organizations tend to choose more empowering options than less open organizations. Concentrating the attention on the licenses and copyright assignments without looking first (or at all) at the organization setting is like investigating shadows before (or instead) the objects that originate them.

    Why do you keep thinking that I’m trying to defend or dress up Nokia or maemo with this post? In fact I’m helping to dissect how open maemo and similar corporate initiatives can be compared to other alternatives offering the full setting of a grassroots free software project. Going through the list is easy to see that any project sponsored by a single company gets fewer openness points compared to social and distributed initiatives like Debian, GNOME and so on.

    Yet in real life more and less open organizations collaborate in order to increase the share and relevance of open source software, and this is good.

    By the way. Do you really think that people hired by big companies can’t keep looking the world with a community perspective? Do you think all they do and say is on behalf the company that hires them some hours a day? Do you consider yourself part of a community I’m not part of? That would be a simplistic view.

  7. 7 qgil


    > you’ve previously claimed that Nokia isn’t doing anything wrong with respect to the
    > open source community (and software developers in general) and that any wrongdoing
    > is, in any case, old news.

    I have not said that. And if you want to discuss the post relating to patents then please comment there. It’s ok if the software patents is your focus, but please understand that I enjoy writing and discussing about other topics in my humble blog.

  8. This is a rather elegant and fairly comprehensive list, at a glance. I’m going to bring this up with my student society ( and see if we can’t adopt this as some kind of policy. Good work!

  1. 1 paul cutler’s blog » Blog Archive » links for 2008-05-05
  2. 2 Random thoughts and serendipity » That thing about the ‘Ctrl’ key
  3. 3 Open TT checklist y el sistema de Ciencia-Tec-empresa « TechTransfer
  4. 4 Open TT checklist y el sistema de Ciencia-Tec-empresa « Pere Losantos

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