by Venky Hariharan
With 1.4 billion people connected, the Internet is the greatest collaborative network that mankind has experienced. One of the consequences of the growth of this network is a shift in the way knowledge is being created and distributed. As we move to an interconnected world, the balance of power is shifting from old, proprietary models of knowledge creation to the open source model that emphasizes collaboration and sharing. From management gurus to consulting firms to leading business schools, everyone is taking note of this new phenomenon that goes by various names like ‘Collaborative Innovation,’ ‘Open Innovation,’ or ‘Distributed Co-creation.’
The open source movement has pioneered the Collaborative Innovation trend, and it is no surprise that the rapid growth of the Internet and the equally rapid growth of the open source community have mirrored each other. The Linux® operating system and Wikipedia website are both good examples of open source projects that embody the ideals of Collaborative Innovation. And those in the technology industry aren’t the only ones to take notice. Policy makers and corporate leaders in all markets are exploring how this powerful trend can be harnessed for social and economic development.
Let us take Linux as an example. In September 1991, Linus Torvalds released 10,000 lines of source code under the General Public License (GPL). The GPL gives users four freedoms:
- The freedom to run the program, for any purpose
- The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor
- The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits
Over the years, thousands of volunteers contributed to the code released by Torvalds. It is estimated that Linux now has around 100 million lines of source code and that the commercial value of this source code is approximately eight billion dollars.  This represents an enormous wealth of knowledge that is freely available.
The innovation that is possible through the efforts of thousands of people collaborating on the Linux source code is a powerful (and constantly growing) advantage for open source software. In the next few years, we may see the pace of innovation in open source outstrip anything that proprietary vendors and their closed group of paid programmers can produce.
Explaining this phenomenon, Tim O’Reilly says that, “Sustained innovation is no longer just about who has the most gifted scientists or the best equipped labs. It’s about who has the most compelling ‘architecture of participation.’”
Henry Chesborough, author of the book Open Innovation explains the contrast between the open and closed innovation models with this chart:
|Closed innovation model||Open innovation model|
|The smart people in our field work for us.||We need to work with smart people inside and outside our company.|
|To profit from research and development (R&D), we must discover it, develop it, and ship it ourselves.||External R&D can create significant value; internal R&D is needed to claim some portion of that value.|
|If we discover it ourselves, we will get it to market first.||We don’t have to originate the research to profit from it.|
The term “Collaborative Innovation” may be new, but the concept and the practice have been part of Red Hat’s corporate philosophy since the company’s inception. For 15 years, Red Hat has applied this framework to successfully compete with proprietary software vendors who have built multi-billion dollar empires using the closed innovation model. The Fedora® Project is a prime example of Red Hat’s Collaborative Innovation strategy. Red Hat engineers work with the open source community to develop cutting-edge technologies for Fedora. When these innovative technologies mature, they are incorporated into Red Hat® Enterprise Linux.
By working with smart people inside and outside Red Hat, the company is able to create a transparent, cost-efficient model of technology development. Despite having just 2,600 employees, Red Hat has been able to build and provide world-class solutions that are deployed in demanding environments like the New York Stock Exchange and the Federal Aviation Administration as well as large government and private deployments across the world. While Red Hat does not generate all of the code that makes up Red Hat Enterprise Linux, the company is able to create value by providing services, training, and support around open source software. This is no mean feat considering that the primary operating system competitor is a deeply entrenched company that employs more than 50,000 people.
Eager to take full advantage of its possibilities, thought leaders across the world are applying the collaborative innovation model in areas like content (Wikipedia), medicine (Open Source Drug Discovery), scientific publishing (Public Library of Science), flexible copyrights (Creative Commons), and many other areas. Red Hat’s greatest contribution to the Collaborative Innovation movement–so far–has been its success in building a business model around open source software that can be replicated in other fields. With the Internet becoming an integral part of our lives, Collaborative Innovation is set to become one of the most important aspects of our future.
About the author
Venkatesh Hariharan is Corporate Affairs Director at Red Hat and works on open source, open standards, and other policy issues. He is interested in the impact of technology on society. He co-founded IndLinux.org in 1999 and pioneered localization of Linux to Indian languages. He blogs at www.osindia.blogspot.com and his photos are at www.flickr.com/photos/venky7.