Monday, June 19, 2006

On Innovation (II)

Beyond Competition and Dependency

I received some great feedback to my last post: the imaged letter to the CEO of a corporation serving the nonprofit world. In this installment, I want to expand on that conversation and use that feedback as a counterpoint to expound and refine some further possibilities.

One great piece of criticism I received on the initial letter was that innovation should be coming from nonprofit support organizations, the open source community and even organizations themselves. I certainly agree. Ideally, these sources would power innovation. Practically, though there are a number of reasons innovation does not circulate freely within the nonprofit sector. Mostly, the dispersion of innovation across the nonprofit sector is hampered by two forces, competition and vendor dependency.

On competition; organizations need to programmatically define advantage and uniqueness in their fields. Therefore, a cultural organization with a distinct content delivery mechanism, a humanitarian aid group with unparalleled impact reporting and stewardship mechanisms, a university with distinct alumni relations and community technology, these are competitive advantages to raise more money, serve more people, attract greater attention to a mission and an organization. In an online and offline world of finite constituent attention and fundraising dollars; there is a very real pressure to protect internally defined and developed best practices and solutions.

How would this competition be overcome? There would have to be some group that was immune or beyond competition for fundraising dollars. This group would need to have substantial technology expertise, knowledge of nonprofit business practices of varying scales and would need to be large enough to support the differing programming needs of the breadth of third sector institutions nationwide.

The open source community fits this description on most counts. A group of innovators above organizational segmentation, the open source community (OSC) occupies an unique position and outlet for defining nonprofit best practices in both theory and practice. Indeed, open-source is a powerful tool for those technology shops with the expertise and resources to integrate disparate open source parts into their technical environments. But from my experience, the majority of nonprofits are not looking for the moving parts to build a technology engine, they are looking for a fully formed product - a panacea. As such, the vast majority of innovation and best practices at the enterprise level are being defined by the small handful of nonprofit enterprise vendors that were able to ride the venture capital wave and also survive the bubble collapse; those megaliths that steer nonprofits through the sheer weight of their market share and product offerings.

There are certainly some exceptions; take Koha, an open source integrated library system. It is really a fantastic project, one that I have followed for some time, but one that has difficulty keeping up with the innovations of its commercial counterparts - for example, in regards to the Z39.50 standard. There is just not enough of a committed and educated user community to sustain a level of parallel innovation. As library technology continues to advance , this gap will only widen between the innovation offered by Koha and those of its commercial counterparts. I explore this example, not to undermine this respected project, but to outline the very real challenges of open source innovation for small and medium-sized nonprofits.

This is why I start with the CEO; a top-down approach. This would fit the previously outlined requirements description as well, technical expertise, size, knowledge of nonprofit operations at a variety of levels. I believe the route that will ultimately create a mutually-supportive cycle of technology need, innovation and capacity building within the nonprofit sector is encouraging (even demanding) more forward-looking, transparent and open commercial products. To reward vendors when they are expansive in their vision of new technologies (and penalize them for the downward spiral of non-productive version and upgrade co-dependency) will benefit all and create a foundation for future growth. I am not advocating a new run-for-the-vendors ideology. I am speaking on behalf of a new idea of the relationship between vendor and customer. With the shifting of that paradigm, a greater wave will be possible; a wave that includes organizations, technology vendors and a growing community of open source practitioners, looking for new and engaging ways of extending, improving and connecting various technologies.

I can anticipate the questions: Is this new idea even possible? What would it entail?

Look around. There is already a shift in the relationship between open source and the corporate sector. It is apparent in Java's recent dabbling, IBM's reliance on Linux, even Microsoft's suggested opening of code. The behemoths of the corporate IT world are cracking the flood gates. Why? Not because they are adherents or believers of open source, but because it makes good business sense. As a further example of how this paradigm shift can play out, consider the Google API community. By publishing API's, creating windows into their inner-workings, extending the capabilities of its commercial products, a whole range of software and applications are available. This open-source model (driven by the corporation) is compatible both with the bottom-line as well as linkage with the community of users and practitioners. Now it is time for nonprofit technology corporations to follow. Where is our sector's Google?


ranginui said...

Have you taken a look at

From what I can tell its far ahead of tons of other systems. As for z3950 support, Koha Zoom and the upcoming 3.0 release is backend with zebra, which koha talks to with z3950.

I really dont think the Koha project has any trouble at all keeping up. In fact in all the requests it ever had from libraries for features, its never said, "thats impossible". Its been added.

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