Can Open Source be a Disruptive Force in Social Collaboration Software?

Jeff Walpole, CEO

Spoiler alert: yes, we think it will be.

In our first post of this series: Help! I’m Drowning in Social Collaboration Software! we discussed how the social collaboration software landscape is a dynamic, confusing, and rapidly changing space that is hard to navigate, but full of promising tools. In our second post, Are We Asking Too Much of Collaboration Software? we discussed that success with social collaboration software requires organizations to focus on their business challenges and truly know the problem(s) they’re trying to solve in order to choose the right tool for the job. In this final post, we will address why we believe open source can the disruptive force for the space.

From our experience with social collaboration software, which recently includes rebuilding Open Atrium, we believe that open source offers a different and compelling value to this market, introducing the elements that are most fundamental to success: flexibility, extensibility, and community to a market dominated by proprietary solutions devoid of these factors.

Social media is changing fast. That’s fine in our personal lives (ooh! twitter! now tumblr!) But in the context of social business software, we have to invest for a longer term in tools that have concrete gains that relate to our business goals. Historically the most compelling business cases for IT tools were achieved when you can prove an increase in revenue or in the ability to market to customers. The problem with social collaboration software so far is that its best chance of success lies in our ability to use these tools to 1) reduce cost, 2) achieve greater productivity, or 3) leverage insights for competitive advantage. This has kept the intranet and social collaboration software in the “world of corporate IT” where saving costs and improving efficiency are all people are expecting to gain from it. Still, if these advantages can be achieved, the cost is well worth the effort. The trouble is believing the hype that we can achieve our wildest dreams and falling into common traps.

It is time for social collaboration to break out of these perceived weaknesses in its business case and prove it can have a measurable business benefit to the organization.

Consider the trends in the web content management system (WCMS) space over the last 5 years. Commercial and proprietary vendors have fallen victim to a widespread movement towards open source solutions like Drupal, Wordpress. This massive landscape change has made open source the dominant choice for organizations in their WCMS because the proprietary vendors no longer had solutions worth carrying the price tag. Why would the same trend not prevail in social collaboration software where the environment has the same (or better) characteristics that make it prime for open source?

There are five reasons we think open source solutions can help organizations find the “right tool for the job” in social collaboration software while avoiding many of the traps we see in the space.

  1. The return on investment is better. This software is generally a big investment for an organization. When you can keep costs down with a growing and competitive talent pool, avoid licensing and maintenance fees, and see your software improve through free community contribution, you’re going to see a higher ROI.

  1. Open source is (surprise!) more flexible. We promise, you don’t know everything you need your social collaboration software to do or be capable of. Nobody does. Because those needs are changing. Open source allows you to use it, study it, and change it. That’s important, and can mean the difference between useful and outdated.

  1. Their way is not your way. Vendors have good ideas, but they aren't your ideas. You might benefit from best practices but ultimately that is a choice between what CAN be done and what your users need. Targeting the opportunities and pain points of your own organization is where the solution will start to feel genuine.

  1. A "glue approach" is better for the growing feature set. The feature list alone of any of the “catch-all” platform products begs an important question: “can these guys really be good at ALL this stuff?” The answer: probably not. An open source solution that can integrate with existing “specialty” solutions lets your organization choose from the specialists who do what they do best, rather than trying to choose a monolithic solution that is a catch all.

  1. The market is changing. Innovation matters. Social collaboration software is, probably more than almost any other organizational tool you use, subject to the rapidly changing landscape of social media, sharing, and collaboration trends. The features the “big guys” are working on today may be outdated by the time they’re released and the features your organization needs may not be ready or even considered.

Drupal and other open source solutions offer an answer to these traps by giving you a platform you can extend and customize without fear of lock-in. In the past years, the open source community -- and particularly the Drupal community -- has sought to fill the market’s needs with open source alternatives to the proprietary social collaboration solutions that exist now.

A host of modules and distributions exist to address this market now. Modules that perform specific functions like Workbench, Organic Groups, and Messaging API provide functionality like workflow management, notifications, messaging, and group management to those starting from Drupal Core.

At Phase2, we are tackling the problem with Open Atrium (now available in Alpha!) Where we hope to make a flexible integration solutions that works with other popular systems.

Many other Drupal distributions like Commons, Totem, and RedHen CRM address the need from more of a “platform” perspective, providing a starting point for a variety of social solutions with multiple pieces of functionality designed to connect teams, manage projects, allow for messaging and notifications, enable “friending” and following, and create wikis, portals, document management, and community forums.

You should not be shocked that a company whose motto is “open source. open minds.” would be pushing for an open source approach to collaboration software. But the reasons why open source matters here are compelling.

The needs are changing, the features are growing, and the market is confusing because no one can expect to understand (much less constantly make purchasing decisions) in the changing face of this space. With open source, you don’t have to, knowing that the talent pool, the reuse of best practices, the flexibility, and the innovation will keep up where a single proprietary solution falls short.

In essence, social collaboration software is moving at the speed of open source.

Jeff Walpole