Supercharge your business: why it pays to be open.

17 May 2023 by Catalyst

Think about a fresh cup of coffee. What do you care about most from the below? A or B?

A. The coffee has a nice aroma, it tastes good and is served in a pretty cup (and maybe even at a table with a view) which makes it even more pleasant to drink.

B. The brand of kettle that was used to boil the water; the method used to grind the beans; the way your coffee order was processed at the register; whether the napkin has the cafe’s logo on it.

We don’t like to generalise but most people care about A more than B.

Every business has visible elements where ‘shiny packaging’ and custom elements play an important role and often add great value (whether real or perceived). Every business also has commodities (be it physical things or processes) that play an equally important role in adding value but are invisible to your clients. This applies to small businesses and large organisations alike.

To translate the ‘cup of coffee’ example into a large organisation setting e.g. a university, it may sound something like this:

A. The campus is green and beautiful; there are all the necessary conveniences on site, including a variety of cafes; it offers a lifestyle balance as you can choose a hybrid mode of study; the student portal where you can access your study materials is well organised and easy to use; there’s always support when you need it.

B. The university’s delivery includes procurement systems, HR procedures, a number of meetings held each year dedicated to the improvement of student experiences and various relevant professionals in teams / committees; all overseen by the steps taken in the IT department to protect personal data of staff and students.

If you are a student, you are more likely to care about A – the visible elements and your overall experiences rather than B – the systems and processes behind the delivery of quality education.

As a business owner however, you probably invest a lot more time and effort in your “back office” systems and processes than developing the ‘shiny packaging’, because at the end of the day a good service experience will speak for itself.

If my cup of coffee took half an hour to come out, for example, the frustrated client is likely to be less receptive to the ‘wow’ factors: the pretty cup, the aroma or even the taste. This concept can apply not just to your business as a whole but to individual parts of your business and the investment decisions you make for each of those parts.

How does all this apply to your digital strategy and how you can reap the benefits of collective ambition by investing in open source projects?

What inspired us to write this blog is the Open Universities Keynote Panel discussion held at THETA conference last month, which our team were proud to be a part of. Moderated by Clare Thorpe, the Panel discussion focused on the challenges and opportunities in the space of open education, open research and open technologies. The guest speakers included: Professor Helen Partridge of Deakin University, Fiona Bradley of University of New South Wales and Brendan Heywood of Catalyst IT Australia.

“Open Education in Australia is still embryonic,” noted Professor Partridge, with the Panel agreeing that there are many challenges still to overcome, including shifts in mindset, culture (habits and behaviours), reaching consensus on what being ‘open’ means, measuring success of open projects, communicating clearly and promoting the benefits of being ‘open’ to the wider community.

The Panel agreed that while a lot of great things are happening at the individual university level, a sector wide approach was needed.

Let’s talk about quality! And the ‘wow’ factors for the end user.

Each of the challenges noted above is worthy of a dedicated discussion but first and foremost we’d like to focus on the topic of quality in open projects. Our key takeaway on this from the Panel conversation is: how we judge and measure quality is important!

This includes: what we consider as quality, how we evaluate it and how we balance the judgement of short and long term benefits in assessing overall quality.

One classic example discussed was Wikipedia – which received a lot of criticism when it first came out but is now known to have better quality of articles compared to its proprietary counterparts. This is because, overtime, open projects, as they are used by more and more people, are known to win in quality as they can only move forwards and not backwards, due to the vast level of perspectives and input.

“In that,” noted Brendan, Catalyst’s Solutions Architect, “how we ask the question is important.”

“If you ask broadly about the average quality of all OS code, you may not be that impressed with the answer. Instead, ask this: “of the open source software that we use, what is of good quality?” Your answer to that will be very different!”

“As more people use an OS product in diverse ways, the better it becomes – more limitations are picked up and addressed, more bugs found and fixed and more opportunities for expansion will be found. You will never be able to achieve the same scale of ongoing improvement alone or in a small team. Not to mention the economies of scale that you will gain.”

Additionally, there are two large factors at play:

“One, think about how many different entities could be doubling up on work and working on the same elements of a closed project, as opposed to harnessing the great collective power/force of pulling in the same direction,” adds Brendan.

“Two, think about the liability of maintaining the software overtime and the costs associated with it. Instead of paying 100% of the cost, if more parties used the product, then each party would cover a fraction of the cost of maintenance and the level of the product’s ongoing improvement would increase and outweigh the maintenance cost.”

“Open sourcing fosters a sustainable life for your projects and better quality results for your end user and your bottom line alike.”

When it comes to efficiencies in open education and open research, Bradley and Partridge agreed, providing an example of copyright compliance and the amount of time spent on adhering to the complicated rules and licences. We are paraphrasing here but “if things were a bit more open, a lot more efficiencies in existing processes could be achieved; reducing the waste of resources and allowing more time for improvements in end user experience,” concluded the Panel.

What about the risks?

The risks involved are another important consideration here.

“Think about security for example,” says Brendan. “Whether your software is open source or proprietary, managing risk applies equally to both. However, when you are part of the OS project, you have a much bigger community of support to lean on when things go wrong.”

Why are we afraid to ‘open up’?

The resistance to ‘opening up’ often comes from losing the sense of ownership of something one has built. But we need to look ‘beyond the finance department’ and initial investments:

  • What are the long term costs and sustainability of the projects, and
  • What differences between ‘As and Bs’ can we benefit from?

Both, the front facing elements – the ‘shiny packaging’ – things we like to touch, feel and own, and the behind the scenes – processes and investments we make that form good, powerful business systems, are equally important in delivering excellent experience for your end user.

Many would argue that the later is even more important.

The clear benefits of investing in OS projects.

Would you really care if the plugin you have built is going to be used by other organisations or your competitors if it’s more of a commodity and not your key differentiator?

As an education provider for example, you must care about the quality and variety of courses you have on offer, and what support you provide to your students around the clock to help them succeed.

If you use software that can help deliver those courses more efficiently, great, but it’s not a visible value element for your end user. Hence, sharing a cost of ownership for that piece of software would make sense. Overtime, it will continue to benefit your organisation at a reduced cost and with continuous quality improvement.

To take it back to the coffee shop example, if you needed to install an expensive water filter system and there was a business next door who would benefit from the same, you could potentially share the cost of installation and maintenance of that system. Would your client really know or care? No. But the coffee may taste better and that’s what the client will come back for.

If you’re still wondering whether it pays to be open? We’d argue, yes, it does, at least in some parts of your business.

Catalyst has been providing quality open source solutions, customised to our clients individual needs for over 20 years. We specialise in software development and IT Managed Services designed for enterprise level and growing organisations. All our hosting clients enjoy 24/7 Follow the Sun support and high availability, flexible and secure cloud infrastructure.