Dr. Peter Vaill, Malcolm Reid & Tony Stanco - Administration
The meeting comprised four panels: Business, Technical, Legal, and Social and Ethical, each of which featured an introduction of the issues and follow-up with an interactive discussion between the speakers and the audience. The aim was to capture and publish the issues discussed in order to raise the industry awareness of the benefits of Open Source.
In introducing Dr. Peter Vaill, also on the St. Thomas faculty, Bill Estrem acknowledged his expertise in organizational behavior. With his orientation, Peter said that he looks at how a project stands and falls on people behaving effectively toward each other. The behavioral scientist asks, “Why or how did this happen?” or “What will happen next?” In contrast, the ethicist asks, “Should this be happening?”
Peter opened with a “thought experiment,” posing this question to the audience: What functions and capabilities of an operating system are taken for granted today which were virtually unimaginable 15-20 years ago? Taking this to the next logical question, he suggested that 15-20 years from now, people would look back on today and be able to come up with a plethora of things they once found unimaginable. The question then becomes, how should the industry behave to make possible the emergence of ideals such as the range of “ilities”—interoperability, reliability, scalability, etc.—so progress does not stall.
His next thought experiment centered on the question: What value systems seem to be in collision regarding the question of Open Source versus Proprietary source code? For him the question sparked a dual response.
Paradoxically, there may be relatively few short-term commercial arguments for Open Source. It is natural that an organization would want to protect innovations of its own making: the potential financial leverage of such innovations very high. The need to recover development costs is continual and intense. There is continuing fear that someone else will create some code that leapfrogs everybody, and it seems foolish to trust that if someone else does create such code, they will readily share it with everyone.
The problem is that what may make sense for the industry may not make sense for individual organizations. Individual organizations experience an imperative to pursue their direct, immediate interests. Organizations develop tacit theories of their survival requirements to justify what appears from the outside to be greed and selfishness.
Next was a strike at the six-sigma mentality. Six sigma impedes innovation by creating performance anxiety, he asserted. Today’s students live in a world where they either perform or they will be fired. The twisted result is a dumbing down of performance. It is a predictable result: Put enough pressure on a human being and it will do what is required, but only what is required. There will be little or no taking chances, of going outside the box. All thought is on the next deliverable, and therefore the immediate project and how it must be produced with zero defects.
Peter next asserted that technical excellence would not carry the day. Directing his remarks to the technical people in the audience, he said that everything they know technically depends for its effectiveness on the meaning that someone else attaches to it. That means they are in the interpersonal world of talking with people, persuading people, sitting around the table in groups and teams—all of the kinds of behavioral things in which technical excellence is expressed. But if they only have the technical excellence, and take a haphazard approach with the interpersonal elements, there is a good chance they will run into difficulties.
Finally, with a nod to John Terpstra’s earlier argument that the big problem in Open Source is the business model, Peter offered additional support in his presentation on the “balanced scorecard.” It is a four-dimensional model of effectiveness of an organization, not just one-dimensional, that is, profit based. In addition to evaluating profit, it also involves the efficiency of work systems, effectiveness with which the company reaches its markets and treats it customers, and the degree to which it is effective with its people.
Next up was Malcolm Reid, the Director of Technology Architecture for Medtronic. Malcolm’s current dual sets of responsibilities position him uniquely within the neurological and diabetes business sector of his company; it is a joint assignment in business information systems and product development. They are different worlds with common questions. First, quality issues come to the forefront; all products must be safe and efficacious. In fact, striving for “the highest possible quality” is part of the company’s mission statement, hence, it’s value system. It is also a legal and ethical requirement considering that the end-users depend on Medtronic equipment to save their lives. The processes in place for software validation, procurement, engineering, and so on, must withstand intense scrutiny.
Malcolm’s sector is now considering an Open Source real-time operating system as a potential platform for a new generation of products. Technical and legal questions immediately come to mind. Can the software be as reliable as the company will require? If Medtronic decides to use an Open Source system as the firmware in their devices, how do they know they have clear title to it? Is there some way the liability can be removed?
Referring back to Ken Goodpaster’s presentation of the four logics, Malcolm wondered if, as an Open Source consumer, Medtronic would have a moral duty to participate in the Open Source community. In other words, he wondered, if non-participation was simply a cause for nagging guilt, or an abdication of responsibility.
With his final question he inherently challenged an assumption that the collaboration associated with Open Source is all done for the side of good. He asked, can it be done in ways that are socially harmful?
Tony Stanco is a founding director of both The Center for Open Source & Government, and Cyber Security Policy and Research Institute at George Washington University. Open Source is gaining respect as a technical model for developing software. From both a social and industrial point of view, Open Source is precedent setting because no corporate or governmental structures are instigating the activities. They jumped into the game after the momentum began.
To varying degrees, governments are getting serious about Open Source. The government has some particular obligations to its constituencies; software for government use is special.
Software in a digital society is more than who can do it more efficiently, or who can make the most money. Capitalist interests are not necessarily ethical in this environment. No single group should have control over software—there are potentially devastating social consequences.