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January 30, 2005

Open Source is the Answer: Now What Was the Question?

Eduventures has just published a report on Open-Source in Higher Education.

In contrast to the cheerleading tone of the press release, analysts Cathy Burdt and Eric Bassett's 17 page study is a thoughtful review of the uneven and unequal value proposition around open-source in higher education. Case Western Reserve University was one of 7 institutions reviewed for the analyst report.

There is no missing that there is a buzz around open-source in higher education IT circles. The Chronicle of Higher Education routinely reports with fawning admiration the significant investment of human talent and millions of dollars of institutional and philanthropic dollars in support of the so-called open-source movement. Indeed, last year more than 30 articles in the Chronicle appeared about open-source almost without exception the narrative was a variation on "Sharing the Code: More Colleges and Universities See Open-Software as an Alternative to Commercial Products." Educause, higher education's technology community's professional association has likewise published more than a baker's dozen of interviews, articles, and opinion pieces on open-source. Most of the views, expressed by some of my most distinguished colleagues, are worryingly IT-centric and largely missing the mark.

My own candid observation is that not withstanding higher education's reputation for being fiercely independent, in the area of IT strategy and alignment the near infatuation with open-source driven by some of our most visible IT leaders is largely a distraction. As I note in the open quote of the Eduventures study, "Every day we have a requirement to deliver services, execution, and strategic mapping, so that in the end we meet the needs of the institution." For those institutions like Case who are trying every day to map our services to the strategic mission of the institution, open-source is an answer looking for a question.

The naive view that we should turn to open-source because, in contrast to a vendor solution, open-source is "almost free" has been debunked for more than a decade and yet remains the opening gambit for many public conversations. Greg Jackson, my colleague at the University of Chicago puts it right when he states "avoid simplistic notions of good and evil. Remember there is no such thing as a free lunch."

A slightly more compelling line of reasoning is expressed by Annie Stunden, my friend and colleague at Madison. In a published piece in Educause Review, Annie states that notwithstanding the entirely unproven capacity of the open-source community in higher education to support and maintain open-source projects, she has thrown some of the formidable weight of the University of Wisconsin's software engineers behind open-source efforts because if we don't we "will remain hostage to an increasingly hostile vendor environment." In the aftermath of the merger and acquisition activity in the software industry (think Oracle PeopleSoft) this might be viewed as sage advise. My own view is that embracing open-source as a core strategy for investing institutional talent and resources needs to be clearly and explicitly understood as a form of what might be called "self-hostaging". Self-hostaging is a term generally limited to discussions on theory of international relations. A nation may choose to demonstrate the extent of its commitment to a specific foreign policy goal by burning bridges to other options and even go so far as to self-hostage itself so as to communicate its absolute commitment to a policy position. Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis is one classic example.

In almost every sense and most every situation self-hostaging in the open-source context is a very dangerous gambit. Self-hostaging represents nothing less than the explicit commitment of university senior management to bet on the four-prong strategy reduced to the proposition "build", "operate", "manage" and "support" their own IT environments. Rare in the American higher education system do we see institutions with core competencies in more than two of these key building blocks. The most common pairing among core competencies is operating and managing. To make an audacious institutional commitment to open-source is to commit to a very long play book in which the final chapter's conclusion that "they lived happily ever after" takes the form "and then we will be building a model of self-reliance in which we can shape our own futures." IMHO, this form of the pursuit of self-reliance is, at best, illusory.

At a minimum, while we watch with interest and more than a measure of jealousy of the utopian vision of the open-source wanna-be community, we should realize that the real value of the movement is very different than what we've commonly understood. The major evident value proposition for those involved in open-source is that they are experiencing an all too rare experience namely, community making across institutional boundaries. This is as powerful a notion as it is seductive. As intoxicating a goal as community making might be as a value, what is less clear is what the open-source movement has to offer the institution. President Kennedy's famous words more than 40 years ago, "ask not what your country can do for you-- ask what you can do for your country," now needs to be placed in the mirror of the open-source community. To self-hostage ourselves into an open-source movement without clear, measurable goals, exit strategies, and milestones is, in the end, a narcistic undertaking. We will find that we have created the ultimate justification for the continued employment of IT professionals on our campus. What is less clear is what contribution the professional support organization will make to the sustainability of the broader community called the University of the 21st century. This is the real challenge and it is a very important undertaking. We should not, however, be so blind so as to advocate open-source in the name of building our own community and at the same time place the university community at risk. The challenge should be clear. Let's keep our eyes on the question.

Posted by lsg8 at January 30, 2005 01:32 PM and tagged Bytes 

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