In December 2018, The Wall Street Journal proclaimed that "every company is now a tech company". This is not a bold stretch: Companies looking to earn a competitive edge must find more effective ways to use technology – and this is especially true for enterprise-level organizations. This is why we are in the midst of the golden age of open-source software.
According to a joint study by The New Stack and The Linux Foundation, 53% of companies across industries currently – or, at least, plan to – use open-source software, and larger companies are about twice as likely to use it as their smaller counterparts. For many of these businesses, adopting open source is viewed as a cost-saving measure. The alternatives, after all, are either developing in-house proprietary software or licensing software from a third party. Depending on the capabilities involved, both options can quickly run up an intimidating bill.
However, many companies implementing an open-source strategy will eventually find that it, too, has some long-term costs and hang-ups. Consider that it can be difficult for your internal information technology employees to diagnose and fix routine problems in software they did not develop, which means higher maintenance costs over time.
You could also end up spending more time and energy trying to integrate incompatible components of open-source software with existing IT infrastructure. And if the software will be used across departments, it can be difficult to coordinate its use. Different teams could be using the same software in competing ways (in worse cases, they might even use different versions of the same software).
Without a robust open-source strategy, the headaches of integration, maintenance and routine use can end up costing you as much as licensing or internal software development. Despite this, enterprise leaders preparing for an uncertain future should know that open source still enjoys significant competitive advantages over its alternatives.
Reaping open source's benefits
Rather than thinking of open source as a way to cut costs, it is crucial to start seeing it as an investment. To get the biggest return, then, you will need to leverage open source in as many ways as possible.
Most companies do not think of open source as a marketing tool, for instance, but these projects naturally produce thought leadership value. If a company can post an intriguing open-source project on software development platform GitHub and promote it via existing marketing channels, this can boost its credibility as an innovative industry leader more than any old advertising campaign.
Open-source projects also suggest that a company takes innovation seriously: In a survey Wipro published alongside Oxford Economics, 38% of respondents said open-source usage has increased developer retention and recruitment, and 16% cited heightened collaboration with a stronger developer community as the biggest benefit of open source. Because tech currently has a higher turnover rate than any other industry, it is clear that retention and recruitment will be a key differentiator in the coming years.
The most important thing for enterprise leaders to remember is that open source allows companies to achieve higher levels of innovation. By crowdsourcing ideas from developers outside your organization, you are incorporating creativity and insight that would be impossible to replicate internally. And the beauty of an open-source project is that you never have to settle: You can simply keep allowing developers to tinker until you have a project you are happy with.
Large, complex enterprises such as Deutsche Bank AG – which made its 'Waltz' solution publicly available to the open-source community in February 2018 – are beginning to treat open source as an essential component of their long-term innovation strategy. If more companies can adopt a similar approach, open source will help them do a lot more than just save on licensing costs.
Here are a few ways companies can get started on this journey and avoid roadblocks along the way.
Ensure all your executives are up to speed
To get the most out of your open-source program, you have to make sure that your projects are not just the domain of the chief information officer. Assemble your leaders – including those in operations, human resources and marketing – to talk about the latest trends in open source. You can talk to leaders from individual departments about how (and when) their departments could benefit, and you can even host on-site open-source workshops to facilitate candid discussion. This kind of organizational alignment increases the chance for success.
Clearly define your mission
Make sure the vision for your open-source strategy is clearly stated, documented, and easily accessible. If you have not drafted up this vision quite yet, find a few questions that can help you get a framework started. Who will be responsible for what? What are the goals regarding this project? What are the expected outcomes? How can the business measure success, and how will it be defined?
By hosting a brainstorming session with the leaders central to your open-source opportunities, you can ensure key players are aligned on all areas of open-source strategy.
Align the rest of your IT department with the open-source ethos
Before rolling out a new project, make sure your company is set up to integrate open-source software smoothly and quickly. Because open source is known for its altruistic, collaborative ethos, this might mean making technical and cultural adjustments to your existing team and infrastructure. To start, make sure your internal IT teams hold the same values that open-source collaborators champion: collaboration, transparency and meritocracy are just a few.
Engage the community
To ensure you are getting the most innovative development work available, have your team members do some outreach and networking among the developer community. Have your marketing and IT teams collaborate to identify which communities to work with and plan out the best ways to pique their interest.
Before rolling out a project formally, you can ask for input from their perspective. Consider that 80% of your features will only be used by 20% of your users. Unlike marketing teams looking to add as many features as possible to differentiate from competitors, users have a vested interest in making your platforms and other projects highly functional. Besides this, external users often know what will work best about a software product before any internal team does.
Plan for the future – and figure out how you will scale
To truly leverage open-source software for innovation, you should always be thinking one step ahead. What future goal will this current open-source project enable you to work toward? Thinking long-term will help you plan out the best processes to ensure you’re getting sustainable value out of your open-source investments.
Every company bets on technology to drive future growth, and open source will be a part of that growth in one way or another. Putting together a plan today could be what places you ahead of competitors in the future.