Stop knowledge hoarding: open source your internal expertise

three people working on laptops smiling, digital skillsIt should come as no surprise that companies with a culture of sharing knowledge and expertise have a substantial advantage when it comes to upskilling, coordinating teams and undertaking organisation-wide projects.

However, getting different parts of a business to talk to each other can be challenging, especially in larger organisations. This can become particularly tough when an organisation wants to share knowledge and expertise between teams and across the entire enterprise, as leaders will often find themselves butting up against the phenomenon known as ‘knowledge hoarding’.

Knowledge hoarding refers to individuals and teams that purposefully keep critical business, technical, or industry knowledge to themselves. This can prove to be a major structural challenge for businesses and the implications go beyond familiar issues such as siloing between teams. It can be driven by an individual’s desire to protect knowledge they feel they’ve worked hard to gain, but it’s of no benefit to the business. The inability to share information can limit opportunities to nurture talent, stunt interdepartmental projects, and lower the quality of output for partners or clients.

Given how entrenched the issue can become, taking the first steps to share information more widely and openly across the business can feel like a seismic shift. However, there are many encouraging lessons and examples that can be learned from the open source software community to help you get started.

Open source is all about collaboration

Open source software i.e. software whose source code is open to be used, copied, edited, and distributed - draws upon a large community of programmers who develop, maintain, and debug the code on an ongoing basis. Anyone can contribute to an open source project, see all previous versions of the code, and be privy to conversations between developers working on the project’s latest versions. Essentially, this means that all knowledge of the project is democratised, and there are no gatekeepers to prevent interested parties from attempting to make contributions; even a casual observer has access to the information needed to understand the project's direction.

In this way, open source software begets an open and meritocratic culture. With no incentive or benefit to hoard knowledge in the open source community, developers are instead encouraged to share and  review their ideas among the community. New concepts and ideas at the cutting-edge of a project are shared and collaborated on, ultimately creating something even greater. The accessibility offered by open source processes allows for innovative new ideas to surface, which helps bring products to market even faster, while also providing a means to promptly call out errors or shortcomings that might hinder a project.

However, the culture of the open source community need not be restricted to software. It’s possible for organisations to adopt open source structures and working practices to tackle the issue of knowledge hoarding head-on.

Introducing Communities of Practice

So how exactly can organisations improve knowledge sharing? To mirror the example of open source communities, organisations should  focus on creating a space for valuable knowledge sharing that will benefit the wider team, rather than just sharing information for the sake of it. For example, anyone can submit code to an open source project, but the code is unlikely to be accepted if it doesn’t benefit the community at large.

This is where Communities of Practice (CoPs) come in. They are spaces within an organisation, wholly dedicated to exchanging and refining knowledge, information and practices in specific subject areas. They operate using the open source way, by connecting people with a shared passion, purpose and set of objectives. Groups are convened to pool knowledge with the goal of developing materials that anyone across the organisation can draw upon and contribute to.

What Communities of Practice bring to the table

CoPs allow organisations to better refine and standardise their hub of internal knowledge, and to create content  that is widely accessible across the business. They can be of use in all areas, from producing training resources,  materials for customer lead generation or even  through to architecture diagrams and technical scripts to support installation.

CoPs encourage decisions to be made collaboratively by cross-functional teams, resulting in much greater efficiency and faster progress. Reusing and building upon existing materials saves employees a huge amount of time and effort, and by creating a common place to share best practices and lessons learned, there are more opportunities for enablement and professional skills development. It’s also valuable to know that those materials have been used by others previously to produce successful outcomes, and that there is someone you can contact with any questions.

Where should you begin?

When it comes to introducing CoPs into your organisation, there are two approaches you can take. A top-down approach is one that starts with executive sponsorship. This requires you to focus first on the strategy, determining the mission and objectives, and creating the right conditions and criteria for success. For example, a frequently overlooked but important consideration is how time will be allocated for people to contribute. From there, you can start the implementation process - building core teams, setting up systems and tools, and engaging in regular communication.

Alternatively, and if you want to get the ball rolling more quickly, you can take a bottom-up approach where the focus is to start with a single  CoP. Begin by gathering a group of people interested in sharing knowledge and promoting learning in a particular area that is aligned with the organisational strategy. Appoint 2-3 people to be CoP managers and define a set of goals alongside a communication plan . From there, you have the foundation to get started.

Taking notes from open source communities can have a hugely positive impact on your business, particularly when it comes to reducing the rigid hierarchies and silo behaviours  (and counterproductive competitiveness) that can emerge between teams. As well as helping your organisation pivot towards an open source culture, implementing CoPs will allow it to benefit from the creativity and energy of your teams, while providing them with democratic support. It’s this uniquely open, democratic, and meritocratic culture that makes the open source way so effective.

Katrina NovakovicAbout the author

Katrina joined Red Hat, the world's leading provider of enterprise Open Source solutions, in 2013 and is a business architect in the EMEA Office of Technology (EOT), working across the EMEA region. Katrina enables customers to realise their strategic digital vision with Red Hat technology and works with organisations to strategically use open source software and methodologies and to establish communities. She guides customers through the process and cultural changes needed for digital transformation and technology adoption to ensure customer success.

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Technology Trends

Open source: the pathway to innovation 

Joanna Hodgson, Director, Presales for UK & Ireland at Red Hat 

tech woman handsOpen source technology has seen widespread adoption over the past ten to fifteen years as organisations cross-industry have caught on to its undeniable benefits.

As the largest open source company in the world, at Red Hat, we believe in the power of open source and its ability, from both a software and cultural perspective, to push the boundaries of technological capabilities. Here’s why.

What is open source and why does it matter?

Open source refers to technology designed to be publicly accessible and open to modification by anyone. It’s designed to be a collaborative and community-driven effort, whereby developers from all around the world can look into the source code, detect any flaws, and make iterations and improvements. By virtue of being ‘open’ and freely available for anyone to work on, it tends to lead to more reliable software and bring products faster to market.

What are the benefits of open source?

Open source software is by definition ‘open’, offering companies full visibility and transparency of the code - this means bugs and defects can be identified much more quickly than in proprietary software, leading to enhanced security. As Linus Torvalds, the founder of the open source operating system Linux, once said: “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”.

Secondly, it doesn’t include many of the costs associated with proprietary software, such as licensing fees - this is a big perk for businesses, allowing them to significantly reduce operating costs. Then there is the added cost of wanting to switch to a different software provider down the line; using open source software helps to avoid the pitfall of getting locked into using an expensive proprietary vendor.

Open source also enables companies to better customise their software. Unlike proprietary software that is developed within the four walls of the company and based on limited input, open source software is typically better tailored to the customers’ needs, as the users themselves can add their preferred features while the technology is in development.

Who gets to contribute to open source?

A common misconception is that you need to have existing coding knowledge or expertise to contribute to an open source community. This isn’t necessarily the case, since the philosophy of open source goes beyond just the source code or software. There are a wide variety of general skills that can be applied to an open source project, such as documentation, testing, running a website, handling issues, promotion, writing and graphic design.

The barrier to access is far lower than with proprietary software models, where you’ll likely need to be working for the software provider and have specific expertise. Regardless of who you are or what your professional background is, if you’re passionate about a project and have the time and relevant skills, then you will be welcomed onboard.

The fact that you don’t need to be invited to start contributing to an open source project can be daunting to begin with, and that’s why mentoring new contributors is an important part of the process. Existing community members are encouraged to walk new joiners through their first ‘commits’ (a developer term used when committing the initial code to a repository), whether that’s fixing someone’s documentation or even just correcting a typo. All forms of collaboration, no matter how small, will help to move the project forward.

It’s worth adding that the experience gained from working on an open source project is invaluable to an IT career. Employers will see this type of contribution outside of someone’s day job as clear evidence of their passion for technology.

How do open source communities encourage female contributors?

Female contributors are definitely becoming more widely recognised. And even though there is still more work to be done, throughout my career I’ve encountered more women in the context of open source than in proprietary software, and I’ve witnessed more inclusive meritocracy within open source companies. Besides the fact that open thinking is an essential part of supplementing the open source, open communities, by their design, make it much easier for individuals from all backgrounds to participate, have a voice, and share their experience and skills.

It’s been proven time and again that the more diversity you can bring to a project, the better the outcome is, as you’re benefitting from a greater variety of perspectives, ideas and experience. For this reason, I’d argue that open source is both the fastest and most inclusive way to innovate.

About the author

Joanna HodgsonJo is a technologist at heart and is fascinated by how technology can be applied to business and social challenges. She has worked in the IT industry for 24 years, mainly in technical presales and professional services, including senior business and technical leadership roles.

At Red Hat, Jo leads a team of solution architects helping clients solve business problems with open source software. She is a busy coach and mentor to many technical professionals and loves this part of her role.

Jo believes the IT industry must attract a more diverse workforce to deliver its full potential and actively encourages women to enter and remain in technical careers.

Would be great to hear your thoughts – Jo would be able to write an article about a technical topic relating to open source and cloud, or a more advice-led piece for women in tech.

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