Open But Not Free: Collaborative Software Development Goes Commercial

Open But Not Free

The traditional enterprise software lifecycle cannot keep pace with the speed and changing needs of 21st century businesses, and thus cannot deliver the agility these businesses need to gain a competitive edge and thrive. We need radical change, and we can find the inspiration for a new culture of collaboration in the best practices of the open source software development community.

Line of business executives are too often constrained—not empowered—by IT and software development cycles that limit their ability to respond to market opportunities or create brand differentiation. Typically, companies must wait 18 to 24 months for a new product, with systemically low confidence that the resulting software will actually meet current business needs the day the software ships. Compounding this problem is the high cost of solution customization, governance, and deployment (all of which, in the traditional model, can’t occur until after the product ships), calling into question the entire ROI model for enterprise software as most of us know it.

In “Flexibility Drives the Emergence of the Business Process Platform”—published as far back as 2005—Gartner recognized that today’s common approaches are inadequate because business models and processes change on a shorter cycle than the pace of software development. If enterprises are to achieve their strategic goals, they need a new strategy for software development that significantly accelerates delivery of core technology and business automation, provides agility, and frees IT to become a champion of business change.

The best way to achieve these goals is to embrace the pragmatic philosophy of the most successful open source projects to leverage the expertise of a broad development community and build applications that address real-world business issues. This means inviting customers to collaborate with the vendor as co-citizens of the development world to ensure product pragmatism.

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Solution Development as Continuous Conversation

While the goal for enterprise software vendors is seldom to reduce product prices, the pragmatic collaborative values of the best open source communities provide the key to creating a responsive software solution ecosystem even for a high-end commercial software vendor.

With inspiration from open source, wiki collaboration, and the rise of social software, think of continuous conversation among stakeholders as the breakthrough metaphor for developing high-value software. To deliver this collaborative responsiveness among vendor, customers, and partners, however, we need to provide a new level of transparency to the entire product lifecycle.

Transparency means providing customers and partners with all the same information that staff engineers have – participation in design conversations and requirements, feature and issue tracking, performance data (even when it is preliminary and does not look great), prerelease software, and the source code itself – completely eliminating the secret inner sanctum that most software companies closely guard, and inviting economic stakeholders to the conversation.

This level of transparency may strike some as terrifying, but think of it as “shocking but good.” Creating transparency requires a shock to the vendor’s culture of opacity. And it is initially shocking for a customer to see the bad news along with the positive news the sloppy along with the ordered. But the new habits of open, agile collaboration result in higher value solutions.

Conversations Lead to Value

The benefits to both the vendor and its customers of this new collaborative model abound.

  • Collaboration leads to faster delivery of innovations in applications and technology, in turn shortening time-to-market for new products, increasing business productivity and reducing costs for new product introductions – while providing customers with better solutions much faster.
  • The ongoing conversation with customers introduces the appropriate voices to more quickly adapt applications – and even the core architecture – to meet the specific, often changing business needs of customers. Pragmatic application and architecture changes can be made with the cooperation of product teams, which increases the likelihood the changes will be reflected in newly released and supported products. Today’s customizations become tomorrow’s improved product features based on real customer needs.
  • Likewise, transparency, instead of being something to fear, sustains ROI by influencing product planning, prioritization and development processes to ensure product enhancements solve real-world business requirements and enable customers to better plan for business and technology improvements.
  • The IT organizations of customers also benefit. Collaborative development among vendor, partners, and other customers offers IT increased resource liquidity and productivity. By collaborating with expertise across organizational and geographic boundaries, IT can draw on the larger community to more quickly and effectively meet it own business goals. All appropriate talent – anywhere in the world, in any department, in any role, from any organization – can work together to solve concrete business demands.
  • The collaborative process and customer access to source code ensures a longer-lived solution with reduced customization effort, lower cost of ownership, and superb investment protection.

It’s important to recognize that this form of collaborative software development is more than simple developer communities, such as the Java Community Process (JCP) or partner programs. The JCP is relatively open, but it is more about creating standards than producing the software solutions. And some partner programs provide things like beta access or discussion forums, but they most often result in a different, special world for partners—as opposed to inviting the entire ecosystem to participate as full-fledged citizens of the one product development world already inhabited by employees.

If You Build It, Who Will Come?

In addition to benefiting customers, the collaborative development model offers value to every partner that participates. There are three types of partners that can benefit: core technology providers, professional services organizations, and application software vendors (ISVs). These partners gain direct access to underlying source code and a global community of experts with whom to collaborate. With an active partner community, customers gain a wider selection of new solutions faster, while partners take advantage of the core platform to increase their value propositions, solutions sets and channels.

Sippers and Gulpers Welcome (Or, Are You Intense?)

A significant collaborative ecosystem must encourage a wide spectrum of participation intensity. The level of participation from an enterprise may vary depending on such variables as resources, strength of need, and project phases.

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For example, some members may just download software, browse to find out about upcoming product releases or work in progress, and access discussion forums to find answers to questions about usage and support issues. Others may want to get directly involved in co-development of ongoing projects, participating in requirement and design discussions, experimenting with pre-release software, and contributing source code. Both ends of the spectrum enhance the value of the product they ultimately use—some directly, some indirectly. Still other members may want to propose new projects and drive the design and development process themselves to meet their specific business needs and ensure the highest value results.

In the spirit of pragmatism and collaboration, making the needs of customers and partners paramount encourages more participation and increases the benefit realized by the entire community.

Getting Started

The need to radically change the software development lifecycle has been apparent for some time. How to change it is finally clear. A collaborative model that creates an open, continuous conversation among vendor, customers, and partners will lead to faster delivery of innovation, pragmatic application and architecture changes, and increased resource liquidity for IT. It will also allow vendors once again to produce software that delivers a sustainable ROI for customers by helping them maintain their competitive edge and operate profitably.

Making such a change in your ecosystem will require stakeholders with the courage to champion it. And even then it will not be easy. But the sooner you begin the journey, the stronger your market position will be in the years to come. Customers, push your vendors to be open and collaborate. Vendors, invite your customers and partners to be citizens. Together we can fix the broken promises of enterprise software.

About the Author

A product strategy executive at Chordiant Software (, Greg Biggers is changing the rules for open collaboration on high-end enterprise software. Greg leads the Chordiant Mesh collaboration initiative with over 30 participating companies, over 25,000 pages of content and 15 collaborative product releases. A pragmatic dreamer with more than 20 years of software and Internet experience, he values innovation, interdependence, nimbleness, and a sense of wonder. He blogs at and can be reached at

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