My board is enamoured with the concept of open source software, and as a result there's pressure upon me to invest in it. However, staff members are concerned that if we go down this software path, they'll lose touch with the skills they need to survive in the jobs market. What should I do?
Obtain an all-round view
Lecturer in Information Systems, Cranfield School of Management
You must put the debate on a solid footing by educating all the interested parties (including yourself if necessary). Find out how much the board members really know about open source software. Perhaps it is simply a cost issue in their minds. If so, you will need to make sure they understand the full implications of software ownership. Help them by comparing and contrasting cost of ownership models for open source and proprietary software.
You and the board may still conclude that investment in open source software is the right choice for your organisation, but you must ensure that the decision is taken for the right reasons, and is fully informed. You will then be better placed to manage the consequences of the decision.
Be open with your staff and involve them in your information gathering. This may allay some fears and you may gain some converts to the open source software approach should you eventually decide to take that route. At the very least, you will gain valuable insights into the likely level of resistance to a decision in favour of open source software. Ultimately, the choice made will be that which is in the best interests of the organisation. Staff concerns cannot be allowed to block that, but the ability to maintain an adequate level of support through a transition state will be a significant factor when the decision is taken.
Assess staff contributions
Head of NCC skills source consultancy
It is debatable whether open source software skills will be in less demand than those required for proprietary systems. Whatever your potential staff problems, you are unlikely to convince the board to reverse a business decision. It is certainly true that IT staff are currently concerned about their marketability and, because of this, some staff may be reluctant to invest their time in learning new skills, especially if their existing skills are in demand in the present market.
Remember, though, that the reason why staff are working at your company is because they currently find it an attractive employer. At this point, it would be worthwhile taking the opportunity to review the contribution of staff to the business, not only in the technical skills that they possess but also their knowledge of how the business runs.
OSS is inevitable and progressive
The availability, and subsequent move to the respectability of open source software (OSS) seems inevitable now. At the moment, OSS is still not considered "mainstream", which makes the fears of your people relevant - but only in the current climate. As OSS becomes more respectable, it will become mainstream and the skills required to support it will also become in demand. Thus, it is entirely possible, though not by any means certain, that the skills they now possess will one day be the fringe skills, whilst OSS skills are the mainstream.
In any case, it is ingenuous to suggest that we can resist the trend towards OSS by pleading that we can't possibly support it because our people don't want to. The whole ethos of IT has always been about change and moving forward, and never more so than now. I would take the bull by the horns and announce a special project to evaluate OSS within my current business environment, and then put the strongest detractors in charge of it. Only by dispelling this Luddite attitude will we prove to those who rely on us that IT leaders really can get to the front of the queue.
Marketability is likely to increase
Open source software has started to penetrate the minds, and in some cases the wallets, of corporations large and small around the globe. Such a change in attitude can be seen in the rise in popularity and subsequent deployment of software such as Linux, Apache and Star Office.
Such software has a number of key benefits including greater stability, faster development of functionality and potentially quicker resolution of problems. These are all benefits that stem from the power of the Internet to link together a much wider development community than that traditionally feasible within the corporate sphere.
Despite this, there are also drawbacks that need to be considered. Issues such as internal deployment, training and support are all made more difficult by a code base that is changing at Internet speed.
Ironically, your staff concerns about the loss of skills may be unfounded. Indeed, the recent rise in popularity of open source software is likely to make your employees more marketable rather then less. Furthermore, it is likely that the sense of kudos associated with working within what is likely to be seen as a leading-edge IT department may mean you have less trouble than you imagine in attracting and retaining the people you need.
However, overall as a member of your company's management team, your decision as to what to do should ultimately be based upon what you feel is best for your organisation. Such a conclusion can only be reached by carefully weighing up the pros and cons relevant to your environment and sharing this analysis with your board. Not only will this ensure that they are aware of the pitfalls as well as the benefits, but it also means that you won't be making such an important decision on your own.
Architecture plans pay off
Visiting professor of information systems, Brunel University
It sounds as if your organisation probably does not have either an IT architecture or an IT strategic plan. Without these essential plans and formal statements of standards, organisations can find themselves getting into the type of wrangles and arguments your question implies. I wonder if your board hasn't been dazzled by magazine advice about the wonders of open source software, which can so easily happen if there isn't a well-articulated IT architecture or an IT strategic plan in place.
An IT architecture or IT strategic plan need not be a 300-page document loaded with hi-tech ideas and jargon. Some of the best are sometimes as short as 30 pages, in simple English, and may have only taken a few months to put together. Both of these plans are really worthwhile doing. And they give your efforts to have a highly professional IT operation a much better chance of success.
So, you need to go back a step or two and think through what your organisation wants to get out of its IT; this will then suggest what type of platforms are needed to achieve the corporate business objective. This is not a trivial matter, and to be effective, it needs to be done properly.
This was first published in April 2000