Ict@innovation: Free your IT Business in Africa/5-2
Module 5.2 FOSS Communities
For instructional purpose, it is advised that trainers/lectures use lectures, role play and group and individual exercises as a major means of delivering this module.
Perhaps the most important aspect of a FOSS community is that it is a reservoir of knowledge and skills, which community members are usually happy to pass on to others. FOSS communities are partners-in-business, a place to turn to when you company runs into problems in developing or customizing a particular product, a place where you can promote your company (See the case of “Future Software Resources Nigeria Ltd.“ in Module 2.3), and Bazaars of learning (Sowe, et. al., 2008) where you (the company) will learn in proportion to the degree to which you get involved in a community. Doing business in FOSS context means learning to forge a symbiotic relationship with a host of FOSS communities, Linux user groups (LUGs), FOSS advocacy groups (Module 3.2), and other partners in the business. So vital are these sectors to any FOSS business, this module builds on one of the objectives of Module 1 - “Understand and appreciate how FOSS projects and communities work“ - to give a synergistic review of FOSS communities which may be vital for operating a successful FOSS business in the African context.
This learning takes place on different levels.
On the technical level, communities function as informal apprenticeships. New entrants choose their field of interest, and make their best efforts to contribute. More experienced community members typically provide feedback and advice to the new entrants on how to improve their contributions. But people who are active in FOSS communities also find that they are excellent places to learn about teamwork and cooperation. Since community participants are usually bound together by little else beyond a shared interest, it is essential that every voice is heard and conflicts are resolved amicably, while keeping everyone's eyes firmly on the overall goal. These are practices that a good manager will also carry over into her business, making it a more agreeable place to work. This in turn makes it easier to retain qualified staff.
FOSS communities and your business
Most businesses will probably get the greatest advantage out of their participation in FOSS communities when this participation revolves around technology that is important, but non-differentiating, i.e. not something that sets their business apart from everyone else's. Where is the basis of this?
There are two advantages for you here.
- If your business is in offering services for the Plone CMS, you have an interest in seeing that system improved. Of course, this will also benefit your direct competitors (i.e. other people offering services for Plone). But it will increase the overall size of your market, since a better CMS will attract more clients.
- The other advantage becomes effective if you are offering an add-on to the community's technology, and generate revenue from providing this add-on to your customers. Again, with a better CMS (to stick with the Plone example), the size of your market will increase. In addition to bringing in more revenue for services related to the basic CMS, you will also more frequently be able to charge for distributing the add-on.
For this to work, the add-on does not have to be proprietary. Even if it is licensed as FOSS, you may simply choose not to distribute it to anyone else than paying customers. While those customers are in theory free to pass your add-on to other people, they will probably not do so because it would require them to make an extra effort. Also, the recipients would probably need your services to fully benefit from that add-on -- so even if your customers do pass it on, this means more business for you.
If you provide a FOSS solution to a customer, that customer can also be considered a part of the community around the software involved. This means that there is a good chance that your customers can become relatively well informed about the capabilities and benefits of a solution - if they choose to invest the necessary time and effort. If they do so, they might of course start relying less on your services and more on their own work, in combination with support from the community. But experience shows that this is not usually the case. Rather, most of your customers will choose to focus on their own core business, and continue to ask for your services in supporting the solution.
Module 5.2: ASSESSMENT
•Exercise 1: Use the table below to list down FOSS communities and their associated activities in your country
|Country||Type of community
(eg. LUG, educational, advocacy, Association, Foundation
|Website /URL||Known contact (person, email, etc)||Possible benefits for FOSS business|
•Discussion: Use your knowledge of how FOSS communities work to discuss role transitions of FOSS community members in the figure below.