BT is seeking to increase innovation in its IT functions through the gradual introduction of open source methods.
Jeremy Ruston, head of open source innovation at BT, told a meeting at the BCS last week that BT had undergone a "profound philosophical change" by making all its software development open, "just as it is, in fact, at Google".
BT had suspected that it might do more to improve its IT functions if it directed them with the aim of increasing innovation, rather than merely cutting costs. And it suspected that open methods might bring the increase in innovation in sought.
Ruston's open source unit, called Osmosoft, had been introducing open methods that were organisationally opposed to the top-down management structures of large companies like BT. Its efforts were bearing fruit, but it was not easy.
"Our goal within BT is to change BT, to be able to take advantage of open source," said Ruston. "It can be like trying to steer a massive ocean liner.
"If you are at the top of a huge organisation with 17 layers of management or whatever it is, then to enact a change like that is incredibly difficult. Command and control will often not cut it because there can be people in the chain who don't understand what you are doing," he said.
BT had not made all its software open source. It had made all its software open within BT, so developers could "look over one another's shoulders". Ruston told the BCS Open Source Specialist Group how its IT functions benefited from the new arrangement.
Subverting project failure
"The ability to waste money on internal IT projects is legendary and profound," he said. "Often when we see these large scale projects to replace things, there's a high degree of failure."
Ruston said the size of conventional software project teams was related to the number of customers they had. A team rolling out a system across a large organisation would have to be large to cater to all the internal customers.
"If you take the Oracle model then that implies you will end up with a massive internal group," he said.
Ruston found that the size of an open development was in contrast "roughly proportional to the complexity of the software". The cost, effort and risk was shared with internal customers, who were required to join the development community if they wanted to reap the benefits.
"The deployment costs are with the individual groups who enter the community to get the help they need to deploy the software," said Ruston.
Introducing open methods to BT was nevertheless a challenge. "People had thought open source was against the rules," Ruston said. He did indeed have to rewrite company policy, and had to do so "without frightening the horses".
Software developers had been leading the change, he said. BT had consequently sanctioned their adoption of Subversion, the aptly named software development tool. They had previously been using Borland Star Team.
BT's new philosophy had other lessons for software developers. Its essence had been characterised by Ruston's first project, a collaborative human resources tool that showed business travellers the countries in which it was illegal to be gay.
"Diversity is a characteristic of open source," said Ruston, who joined BT in 2007 when it acquired his open source collaboration tools business. He said open source also thrived on listening to those people with the biggest gripes because they needed more attention.
"That's the weird thing about open source projects. The people you spend the most time with are your unhappy customers. Its like having a party where you only saw the unhappy, miserable people.
"But its a goldmine. Because what you would really like is to make all the happy customers invisible. So then you can concentrate on the unhappy customers."