The Strength of the Community

18 September 2015

Author: Graham Taylor

This week, the Dutch Government hosted the 11th ODF Plugfest in The Hague. Nothing remarkable about that, you might say, but what it illustrated was just how strong the ‘community effect’ can be within IT, and how, if channelled effectively, can boost the long term opportunity and success. Professor Henry Chesbrough coined the phrase ‘Open Innovation’ in the context of increasing the value of a company by building a strong set of external partners. Openness in IT, particularly through Open Standards and Open Source, is rewriting that definition of Open Innovation, by creating communities of interest where individuals, SMEs, global corporates all see an opportunity to build their innovative success, by working in a collegiate, collaborative manner.

Of course in IT, and maybe eventually we will see it in telecomms, the open standard is the foundation upon which that incremental innovation will be built, rather than within the standard itself, and this has allowed the created communities to flourish. We don’t have to worry that the standard for a print cartridge will be controlled by the printer manufacturer, nor for the razor blade by the razor supplier. In IT, companies naturally want to collaborate with their peers, and even their competitors, on standards development because they see this as the most timely way to react to a market opportunity. And as we have seen, it’s the fora and consortia that have been the main vehicle for adoption. But it needn’t be just fora and consortia – the formal SDOs have much to offer and benefit. In November, ETSI are holding a Summit on “Standardisation and Open Source.” An excellent initiative that can do much to break down past barriers and rhetoric.

The danger is though that much will be focussed on process, governance, IP policy etc and probably THE key differentiator will be missed – simply because to the open community its just the norm. I speak of the open culture upon which open source, and indeed open standards, are founded. IPR policies, independence etc all give the essential foundation, but what really makes it work is the wish, never enforced other than by will, to collaborate and cooperate.

The key differentiator that really makes it work is the wish, never enforced other than by will, to collaborate and cooperate.

Let me take this week’s ODF Plugfest as a current example. Professionally facilitated by one leading stakeholder (Logius), the community came to the event knowing exactly what they wanted to achieve. As the name suggests, it supports hands on validation of code and an environment within which to understand progress and take a wider view. In this case, it provided a series of updates on status of the standard (in this case, ODF is managed by OASIS), various stakeholders, including the Dutch and UK Governments, talking about their experiences and progress, some case studies, and then a list of solution providers talking about what they have achieved. All this was followed by the real meat, where the compatibilities of applications utilising the various aspects of ODF could be tested hands on. A great format with developers and policy makers debating – and resolving- what they saw as their core issues. The UK Government talked about their refresh of their acclaimed Open Standards Principles, the extensive set of ODF Guides published last week; the Dutch Government explained the work they were doing on ODF policy compliance testing across their public sector, and suppliers of applications gave some very upbeat presentations. Microsoft continued to surprise many with the completeness of their support for ODF. OFE? Well, we were happy to support with moderation of the discussions, but also with both a new set of ODF Principles for Government Technology, available in both English and Dutch, and the ODF Infograph, now by popular request translated in 10 languages. And from LibreOffice, the announcement that the Italian Defence Ministry had ordered 150,000 workstation places using ODF.

Disappointments? Where were the other European member states? Where were the European institutions?

But the real success is visible when you look at the extent of the active community participation of the OASIS ODF SC, chaired by Jos Van den Oever, himself working for a European government stakeholder (Netherlands). The Plugfests provide an enduring platform for that community to continue to flourish.