Open-source mind-set filters through to open organisations
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