The most successful development strategy your company could have? Open up the process.

That’s the theory behind the increasing interest among enterprises in adopting open source—not just using open source software, but in using open source methodology for their own internal developments.

Open source isn’t for everyone, of course. But even companies that aren’t well-suited for open source are adopting some open source techniques for internal development, known as “inner sourcing.”

Coined by O’Reilly Media founder and open source advocate Tim O’Reilly in 2000, inner sourcing is, simply put, “the use of open source development techniques within the corporation,” writes Tim Yeaton in Open Source Delivers. “Tim observed even back then that the collaborative, self-motivated, meritocratic process of open source development was different and had several potential advantages over traditional development,” he writes.

These include:

  • Improving quality by having multiple people looking at the code
  • Enhancing innovation by having multiple brains collaborating on the same problem
  • Increasing efficiency and consistency with the sharing and reuse of code
  • Cross-organization visibility into code, projects, skillsets
  • Cross-organization collaboration and buy-in
  • Developer engagement and morale

“The idea is beginning to take root in even the most secretive corporate cultures,” writes Phil Granof in Wired. “Its power lies in the inherent social nature of the creative process. When developers are able to access, use and build upon what their colleagues are creating, innovation can really take hold.”

Companies that are adopting inner sourcing report reduced costs, faster development cycles, and attracting talent that can help increase innovation and create a competitive advantage, writes Libby Clark in Linux.com.

The talent issue is particularly interesting because inner sourcing offers developers more autonomy, Yeaton writes. “Corporate IT developers share many of the same motivational self-interests of open source community developers around solving problems and being recognized for their contributions,” he writes. “Providing higher levels of visibility and information in a systematic way enables developers to volunteer and self-organize around areas of interest and/or their unique skills and capabilities.”

Implementing inner sourcing requires change at the corporate level, notes open source consulting company Black Duck. “Developing an inner source strategy requires a cultural change, shifting from siloed, hierarchical development and innovation models to one that embraces transparency, promotes collaboration, encourages self-governance and evaluates contributions based on merit (as opposed to contributor titles or background),” the company writes on its website. “To be successful, Inner Source must combine this shift in corporate organizational and cultural models with the proper processes, tools and technologies to achieve major business and technology benefits and competitive advantages.”

To be sure, the organization must sponsor and endorse the process—but not dictate it, Yeaton notes.  “There is often a cross-department, self-formed and managed steering group that provides the leadership and ‘activation energy’ that gets the community-style collaboration going,” he writes.

Organizations such as the corporate consulting company Accenture, Bell Labs, Facebook, IBM, Netflix, Philips Healthcare, Qualcomm, Rent the Runway, Samsung, Thomson Reuters, and Walmart Labs are embracing inner sourcing.

“Inner Source is developer-centric, meaning developers browse available projects hosted on Inner Source and manage favorites and watch lists to track activity of interest,” Accenture writes. “Developers interact together through one or more projects, which can contain one or more top-level repositories and any repositories managed by the project’s contributors. Any developer can create a project in Inner Source, but all projects are visible to everyone in the Inner Source community. This allows you, as a project owner or administrator, to keep an eye on what people are working on in their individual clones of your repositories. It also lets you merge or provide feedback on their contributions.”

Because it requires more rigorous methodology and documentation, employees are actually more productive in the long run, report inner sourcing supporters. “Open source methods, when you apply them well, force you to document and formalize your process which can be a very good thing,” Camille Fournier, chief technology officer at Rent the Runway, a fashion and technology startup, tells Linux.com. “That documentation is useful to onboarding new people in the company, and it makes it much easier to track what is going on.”

On the other hand, there’s also the issue of responsibility, Fournier notes. “Sometimes code that is owned by everyone is owned by no one, and not everyone wants to jump in and fix a bug in a system they don’t know even when the process enables it,” she admits. “It can be hard to assign stewards when you have a small team and a lot of code, because sometimes others mistake the stewards as those that should be making all the changes themselves.”

How to get started in inner sourcing? “Companies must first have a vision for what they want to accomplish and establish some processes for participation,” writes Libby Clark in Linux.com. After that, they can introduce the tools and technologies for collaboration, such as helping developers who work across teams and geographies communicate better with tools like chat, mailing lists and wikis, and adopting common tools and methods for software development, she writes. These include the same sort of repository tools that open source development uses, such as GitHub.

“Start by defining clear community goals, then identify seed collaborators who can act as mentors in the open source culture,” Guy Martin, open source strategist at Samsung Research America, tells Clark. “Then choose a small project to start implementing the new methods and deploy the inner source platform.”

Perhaps it’s time for your company to open the door to inner sourcing.


Simplicity 2.0 is where we examine the intricate and transitory world of technology—through a Laserfiche lens. By keeping an eye on larger trends, we aim to make software that’s relevant to modern day workers, rather than build technology for technology’s sake.

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