Saturday, 17 November 2012

Impact of Organizational Openness and the Openness Index


For a variety of reasons openness has become an intensely popular topic of conversation during the past few weeks. Although much of the discussion has been about free and open content and the use of terms, there has been another quieter dialogue about openness as applied to organizations. Are open organizations more likely to produce open products with higher levels of fidelity than organizations with closed cultures? If so, is this an example of latent pattern transmission?

Although interest in openness has been mounting for some time, during the past few weeks openness and the term “open” has been widely discussed, thanks I think in part to the growth of MOOCs. The Educause Openness Constituent Group is busy, the OER-community list is buzzing with discussion about a OER mapping project, Inside Higher Education (the Post, Chronicle, etc.) is publishing articles on the topic, the “Openness” of MOOCs is being questioned, the Babson Survey Research Group has done a report on OER, and we received a banner number of participants (at least 5 times that of any previous meeting) at the Openness Constituent Group meeting in Denver last week.

It is great that such a variety of people are showing interest in this important topic. There is a lot of attention being paid to the differences between “free” and “open,” and most of the discussion is about not confusing something that is fee free with something that is distributed openly. There is also a voice being raised against absolutism, suggesting that we do not want to become too militant and exclusive about what is open and what is not. I agree, I think that there are degrees of openness and that they should be recognized exactly for what they are. Along those lines I believe that it is important though to be clear and as exact as possible about the levels of openness, what we call them, how we talk about them, and what they mean. If we fail to do so, openness will become the next trivialized notion that is more useful for marketing than anything else. It is my feeling that these issues can be addressed relatively easily. I know that the following bullets are a bit naive, but perhaps they strike a good balance of directness, simplicity, and accuracy. If not, fire away.
  • When access to something is provided with no fee, it is gratis or “fee-free.”
  • When all rights are retained, then the work is closed.
  • When all of the freedoms are present to qualify as a Free Cultural Work, the content is open, and
  • When some rights are reserved, then the resource is partially open.
Fortunately the Creative Commons has provided us with some structure around this last bullet. It is true that a work can be fee-free and open, or can be fee-free and closed, or fee-free and partially open, but the work cannot be considered “Open” unless it comports to all of the essential freedoms necessary for free cultural works. Now there are additional considerations. For example, are the file formats open? When files are packaged, are they done so using open standards? Can the content be run on open technologies using open source software, of is one forced to use proprietary options?  If the answer is no to any of these questions, does this impact the openness of the resource? How do we judge works that possess all of the essential freedoms, but require registration for use or a fee for access?

As indicated above, most of the discussion during the past few weeks and during the past few decades about openness has concentrated on open content or resources. Although important because they influence the usefulness of things people use and capture some first principles, these types of categorizations do not really help us when we move from openness as applied to content to openness applied to organizations. I raise this now because Openness in organizations is a topic that a number of folks have been working on for some time and ended-up being one of the principal threads of discussion at the Openness CG meeting at Educause in Denver. During the meeting Pat Masson introduced the Openness Index, which is a Jasig 2-3-98 project. The Openness Index applies a maturity approach to assessing the organizational capacity for openness based on practice and outcomes. It is intended to be a tool to support continuous improvement and capacity development for managers at colleges and universities striving to become more open by practicing the values and principles of openness. Pat Masson and I just posted the notes from the Openness CG meeting.  If you were at the meeting, please feel free to visit and improve the notes - and everybody is of course invited to move the conversation forward.

As mentioned in my last post, I believe that organizations that are committed to the values of openness (as reflected in their governance) and practice the principles of openness (as reflected in their daily operations), are more likely to reliably and naturally develop revenue models that take advantage of openness and create open services and products. This is just a feeling, but it is based on some observation.  For example, I have seen evidence that the commitment to open and transparent governance in the WikiEducator, OER Foundation, and OERu communities is resulting in a natural impulse toward consistent open practice and production. I have also seen practice in which Pat Masson at UMassOnline has created expectations for open practice applying elements of the Openness Index within his work environment. The commitment to open values I believe has notably resulted in a strong bias toward open practice like the Learning Platform Review project at UMass. I apologize to Pat and Wayne for calling attention to them (without asking) by referencing their work, but these are the examples in practice that have me thinking about how open cultures promote the creation of open processes and open artifacts. I am guessing that each of us has positive and negative examples as well.

I am not suggesting that closed organizations cannot produce open artifacts, I am though suggesting that open organizations will do so naturally and are more likely to do so consistently with fidelity. Their understanding and conscience dictates so. And as a practical matter, if I were depending on an organization to reliably adhere to the principles of openness with their products, I would want them to do so as part of a larger pattern. It is my feeling that the products of organizations reflect something of the culture of the producer, and I believe that is why projects like the Openness Index are so important. They help organizations to develop patterns of openness that are reproduced in everything they create, nurture, touch, and influence, which will have a sort of an enduring multiplier effect even if it is just through contact. This is very similar to my thoughts about latent pattern transmission as it applies to colleges and universities. Universities, like other types of organizations have culturally embedded values that become part of everything they offer and create, bridging past and future by influencing the present with teaching, research, and service. If we want a society that values openness, then we want colleges and universities that do as well and that practice openness. I think that tools like the Openness Index and forums like the Educause Openness CG group, the Jasig 2-3-98 project, WikiEducator, the Creative Commons and many others are of practical importance for all of us.

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