Why CIOs Don't Care About Open Source

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I had the opportunity to visit CIO Magazine last week, which was a truly enjoyable experience. I gave a presentation on "Making Your Organization Open Source-Ready," which focuses on understanding the difference between proprietary and commercial software, developing a license and use policy, ensuring an architectural policy so that an organization's open source activities are consistent with its enterprise architecture, and so on.

We had a very lively discussion with questions flying around the room. One question, posed by CIO editor Chris Koch, really struck me: "Why," Chris asked, "are so many CIOs completely uninterested in open source? In survey after survey, open source comes up extremely low as an important issue for CIOs. It's a bimodal distribution -- some CIOs are very pro open source, while many (or most) others dismiss it as uninteresting. Why?"

We kicked around several ideas, but I've thought about the question quite a bit since the presentation, and I thought I'd offer up some reasons why CIOs aren't very interested in open source along with a perspective about why they're missing a sea change that will metamorphose their way of doing business.

Here are the reasons CIOs don't care about open source:

Spend small, think small. Organizational interest inevitably revolves around spending money. Initiatives that require significant budgets focus everyone's attention. Smart people see leaders spending a ton of time thinking about an initiative (e.g., the mandatory, protracted upgrade of Gigantic Enterprise App 3.7) and recognize that's their promotion vehicle. Open source, by contrast, typically requires 90% or less of the budget for proprietary software, so it doesn't have the high profile of being endlessly discussed in yearly, quarterly, monthly, daily, and minute-by-minute plans. While the proprietary vendors love this, it is extremely threatening to IT organizations, as they are steadily being milked by vendors and failing to exercise vigilance in seeking out new ways of getting the job done. I've worked in IT organizations that had end users choose to use outside service providers because they offered much less expensive solutions; IT can fume all it wants, but if its only solution is the official, expensive way, it can expect flanking attacks by open source-enabled end user initiatives.

They aren't told to pay attention. The old cliche was "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM." Today's cliche is "We only buy products from companies in the upper right quadrant." There's only one problem with that approach. Open source products and companies don't play in the analyst-approval game, both for cultural and economic reasons. With open source not present in the analyst game, CIOs never hear about the products when they read their analyst subscriptions, go to conferences, or get briefed. In general, analysts are trailing indicators about new, disruptive entrants into markets, and this is doubly so for open source, which operates by a completely different set of rules than incumbent vendors.

They're fighting the last war. The 90's were all about replacing creaky, obsolete, home-grown apps with packaged software. IT organizations suffered through years of poorly performing, functionally deficient, extended rollouts of enterprise applications. Now that CIOs have finally got these applications under control, they want to focus on optimizing them. There's only one problem with that approach: it misses the software revolution going on under their noses. It's reminiscent of the PC revolution -- compared to the then-existing hardware infrastructures, PC were laughable little toys. IT organizations instinctively resisted the introduction of PCs, worried about their poor security, end user customizability, and, above all else, lack of centralized IT control. Guess what? PCs entered through every pore in the organization, driven by end users revelling in the new form factor that made previously unobtainable applications available at dirt-cheap prices. IT finally assented to the inevitable. Open source represents just the same kind of economic transformation PCs did, only this time it's worse: the barbarians are attacking from the inside. IT employees are typically introducing open source into companies, often with no awareness of all by upper management. Failing to come to terms with this software revolution will be a CLM.

So, bottom line: there are lots of reasons CIOs don't care about open source software. Not doing so, however, is failing to exercise true technology leadership, which is, after all, one of the prime duties of the top job, right?


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