Sunday Times

Open-source mind-set filters through to open organisati­ons

- By Arthur Goldstuck ✼ Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of

Remember when most large organisati­ons were designed from the top down? You should, because that was the prevailing approach the last time we looked, round about yesterday.

Almost every large enterprise has leadership at the top, controllin­g the organisati­on through centralise­d planning. Decisions cascade down, and execution is led by a management team, with title and rank defining one’s place in that hierarchy.

This, however, does not give employees a true purpose, says Dion Harvey, regional general manager for Sub-Saharan Africa of Red Hat, a company best known for opensource software.

“The ‘why’ should be about more than just shareholde­r value or making more money,” he says. “There can be a higher purpose to the existence of the organisati­on.”

The irony is that Red Hat was acquired two years ago by IBM, a giant organisati­on that almost defined organisati­onal structure in the world of informatio­n technology.

However, the fact that IBM appointed former Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst as its president last year was a clue that its corporate culture had shifted dramatical­ly.

Suddenly, it does not sound like heresy when someone like Harvey questions what motivates people in an organisati­on.

“Often it’s about promotion and pay, rather than anything more substantia­l. The convention­al organisati­on’s hierarchy is enforced, because command and control is part of the design principle.

“To become an open organisati­on, you have to start with a leadership team that understand­s purpose. Then, rather than commanding and controllin­g, their mission becomes to set direction and create context for people to function with a clear direction and link to that purpose.

“When you move down to the next layer, where it becomes about the ‘how’ — and that really starts to get into the open organisati­on: how they’re doing the work — they understand the guardrails and the parameters within which they must function. But the decision on how and the ideas that support the execution mean people can not only decide for themselves, but they are actively encouraged to solve it for themselves. In terms of execution, the best idea wins.”

This is anathema to the corporate mantra that says “this is how it’s done around here” or, even worse, “this is how it’s always been done”. Naturally, this mantra is a recipe for strategic disaster in competitiv­e sectors, and for stagnation in those where competitio­n is not so fierce. It’s a common mind-set in South African enterprise­s, and is parroted even in supposedly visionary industries like advertisin­g and marketing.

In contrast, the benefits of an open mindset are massive.

“If you should come up with something better tomorrow, it should be OK to change the ‘how’. We believe that model is a multiplier of staff engagement compared to the convention­al model.

“If you’re galvanised, your passion and your reason for being in the organisati­on are defined by those things rather than to get a promotion or just doing this for the money.” Why would Red Hat push this agenda? “We’re built on the principles of open source. Over time, the company culture also became one of operating within an open organisati­on. There are direct parallels: the way we engineer our software is by engaging with the community beyond our own doors rather than doing all our research internally. We work with open-source communitie­s to engineer our software, but we’re also open to the fact that the best idea might not necessaril­y come from Red Hat.

“It could come from those communitie­s and, in fact, it generally does. It follows some of the principles of how to build better software, namely open collaborat­ion, transparen­cy and meritocrac­y.”

Many a long-serving CEO will scoff at this concept as touchy-geeky nonsense that does not contribute to the bottom line. But such CEOs more often than not preside over edifices with shaky foundation­s.

“The old model is no longer appropriat­e in a world where innovation needs to happen fast. That’s the key,” says Harvey.

“Command-and-control hierarchic­al structure is great for maintainin­g the status quo, but it’s not great for quick adaptabili­ty and change, and tapping into the people who are best equipped to facilitate that change.”

How does an organisati­on do what is obviously in its broad interests when it is held back by vested interests? Harvey outlines five principles that are critical to the transforma­tion process: transparen­cy, inclusivit­y, adaptabili­ty, collaborat­ion and community. These are also the foundation­al principle of open-source software, so it is no surprise to see them take centre stage in open organisati­ons.

The good news is an organisati­on can learn on the job, so to speak. “We didn’t start off with all these open-thinking people; we’re constantly growing. Part of our journey is to help people with the culture of change. An organisati­on can make an announceme­nt tomorrow to say, ‘we’re open’, but if we don’t love and practise the reality of the idea every day, it disappears.”

It follows the softwarebu­ilding principles of open collaborat­ion, transparen­cy, meritocrac­y

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