The Open Individual : its not just the organisation

9th February 2016 By malcra 0

Working for Red Hat, it’s nice to see a book about what makes the company tick and why its different from (most) other organisations that sell software and solutions.

Jim Whitehurst has written The Open Organisation very much in the style of other business and management books, and it focuses on his adaptation and development of the Red Hat culture that has been developed since the company was founded. He’s clear these are not his ideas but as an incoming CEO in 2008 he’s been able to adapt to the company and can now record it.

It has some great anecdotes and observations, which might be in the category of ‘bleeding obvious’ to some people who have worked in open source IT, but will be a revelation to others most used to the traditional, hierarchical world of large corporate business. It’s written in an approachable way, with the use of characters in Red Hat to support some of the key arguments. Jim also admits where he made mistakes by making management decisions (like the virtualisation Qumranet/libvirt one) which were not solidly based on open source.

A few things are interesting:
– the sales organisation is run and is staffed in the same way as any other IT companies and is probably the area where the open organisation is least noticable. If you looking from engineering to sales, you see the normal set of suits more motivated by commission than the ethos of the company. If you are sales person and have worked at Oracle, HP or Microsoft for example, you see this relatively informal organisation missing the big stick and an element of direction. Neither view is covered by the open organisation; can you have a sales team without formal structures and traditional management trees and the facility for self determination ?
– the culture of Red Hat cannot be reproduced easily by other organisations, as it stems primarily from the individual not corporate instruction. There is an element of nurture but its the individual that forms it. Red Hat is a collective noun for a group of authentic individuals, so you need to transplant people (and the right people) into your organisation to replicate Red Hat. No surprise then that this is what a lot of companies have done.
– leadership is a myth sustained by leaders. That’s a harsh view by compared with many organisation, the leader is more of an ‘organiser’ than manager or leader. Many leaders (in terms of technical skills or work achieved) sit within the organisation rather than above. Knowing you are a coordinator, not a manager is something all Red Hat managers have to work out.

Being authentic at Red Hat is something that some people, when joining the company, have a problem with. Interviewing for authentic people (that is they act on what they feel is right, rather than what they feel they should be doing) is relatively hard. However many people true approach, authentic or not, only comes out when they join the company. Some people have joined a successful IT company as it means they will be successful and potentially make good money as an employee, whilst others will be joining Red Hat because it lets them have their career of choice.

However for me, there is a questionable flaw in the premise of the book, that it is the culture, the techniques and the way things are done that makes Red Hat what it is. However in an existentialist sense, it is the individuals rights to exist in their chosen way that is the core of what Red Hat is. This notion, that existence precedes essence is a premise argued by Jean-Paul Satre and which may be at the core of what Red Hat is. A number of organisations have asked for guidance on how they might copy the Red Hat way of contributing to open source and ask what policies, tools and methods, the essence, does Red Hat have in place. They are surprised that rather than having a written policy document, Red Hat tends to trust implicitly how its developers interact with the community and rely on the inherent judgement on the right way of doing things. This is in part because doing something they don’t believe in is living according to bad faith for many Red Hat employees. By choosing to do the right thing they have consciously decided to continue toexist rather than live a false live defined by rules they don’t believe in. Where you have an organisation based solely on essence (the way things are done) then you need policies.

Furthermore you can argue that many Red Hatters don’t see themselves working, not for Red Hat, a community project or for anyone. For them this is there life and how they’ve chosen to live it. Red Hat gets the benefit from this and pays for it. Based on Kierkegaards spheres of life , some Red Hat staff like very much in the aesthetic sphere (businessman, worldly goods orientated), whilst other, more technical people like in the ethical sphere. A smaller subset of employees live in the religious sphere, which means that whilst remaining ethical they are also evangelical about their way of living. More on the evangelists for another article.

For a further review of The Open Organisation.