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Modern companies want to be four things: transparent, inclusive, collaborative and innovative. Although much of this push comes from the move to remote and hybrid work, companies are realizing that these qualities are fundamental to attracting the best talent, faster product development, and revenue growth even during economic uncertainty.

Many companies, however, are struggling with mixed results. Many employees work from home but often report that work still feels inflexible with static working hours and meeting overload. Business leaders are concerned about productivity, can’t find the talent they need, and ultimately feel like they’re moving slower than before.

The truth is there are companies and communities that are transparent, inclusive, and collaborative, and they have been thriving in a distributed world for years. They are global open-source communities, and today’s business leaders of commercial companies should look to them to see what’s possible, not just as a way to build products, but also how to build and run their companies.

Open source: More than publicly sharing source code

When most people think of open-source, they think of sharing source code in public Git repositories. But open-source is also the culture that comes from a process of allowing everyone on our teams to read, learn, and contribute, no matter where in the world they live.

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Take transferring knowledge, for example. Many commercial companies approach this problem by focusing on getting only the right information to the right people at the right time. Open-source communities take the opposite approach and make information available by default, whether it’s source code, documentation, culture handbooks, or discussions among maintainers and even executive leaders. This creates a bias for transparency, continuous iteration, and the expectation for self-service. Everyone has the opportunity to access the information they need and to contribute to it in the future.

Another example is leadership style. Rather than instill broad leadership styles based on culture, trends, or whoever is currently at the head of the organization, open-source communities focus on establishing governance models that everyone in the organization follows. This allows leaders to adapt their approach based on the situation at hand. Some decisions are high-risk and require approval at every step, while others are more iterative or less urgent. Adapting to the situation makes teams more collaborative, flexible, and quick to respond.

These are the innovative changes we see when we begin to run our companies like open-source communities. In short, we create a culture — and expectation — that everyone can contribute, from anywhere, at any time.

Communities become product incubators

An “everyone can contribute” philosophy shouldn’t just include your organization’s team members; it should also include your product’s user community.

Most companies allow their users to contribute to product development through a long, slow process of product feedback channels. This process often requires focus groups, research meetings, beta tests, and conversations full of: “Well, what are you actually trying to do?” This is painful for everybody involved.

Open-source communities simply encourage people to build their ideas at the speed of their ideas. When we make our product’s code source available, we empower our communities to get involved and co-create the product they want alongside us, while rewarding them for doing so. It means they can build the features they need without waiting for product leaders to prioritize them.

This doesn’t mean that companies should let their community users do the hard work. Rather, companies should become transparent stewards of their products, guiding a product’s direction while creating a cycle that leads to more ideas and contributions, more product features, and ultimately, more users.

Balancing commercialization and an open-source mindset

One might assume that commercial companies and open-source products cannot coexist. In the past, this might have been true, but today, there are more and more commercial companies developing open-source products that are category leaders in AI, automation, cloud security and monitoring, and more. We have even seen the first VC funds dedicated to investing in commercial open-source companies.

These successful companies are innovators, and not just because they build great products, but also because open-source is at the foundation of everything they do. Their teams are transparent, inclusive, and collaborative by design, and it is precisely this mindset that leads them to product innovation and commercial success. 

Open-source is no longer only for developers. It is a structure and mindset for how entire global organizations can operate. When commercial companies begin to adopt an open-source mindset, they too will build modern teams greater than the sum of their parts, starting by empowering everybody to contribute.

Ashley Kramer is GitLab’s chief strategy officer, CMO and acting CTO.

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