Being Open by Design

“We were born as a radically open, radically participatory organization, unbound to traditional corporate structure. We played a role in bringing the ‘open’ movement into mainstream consciousness.”

Mitchell Baker, Executive Chairwoman of Mozilla

“If external sources of innovation can reliably produce breakthrough and functional and novel ideas, a company has to find ways to bring those to market. They have to have programs that allow them to systematically work with those sources, invest in those programs.”

Karim Lakhani, Member of Mozilla’s Board of Directors

Mozilla origins are in the open source movement, and the concept of ‘working in the open’ has always been key to our identity. It’s embedded in our vision for the open Web, and in how we build products and operate as an organization. Mozilla relies upon open, collaborative practices — foremost open source co-development — to bring in external knowledge and contribution to many of our products, technologies, and operations.

However, the landscape of open has changed dramatically in the past years. There are over a thousand open source software projects in the world, and even open source hardware is now a widespread phenomenon. Even companies once considered unlikely to work with open source projects have opened up key properties, such as Microsoft opening .NET and Visual Studio to drive adoption and make them more competitive products. Companies with a longer history in open source continue to apply it strategically: Google’s open sourcing enough of TensorFlow will help them influence the future of AI development, while they continue to crowdsource a huge corpus of machine learning data through the use of their products. But more importantly, beyond these practices, there are now numerous methods for crowdsourcing ideas and expertise, and a worldwide movement around open innovation.

All this means: there’s much out there to learn from — even (or especially) for a pioneer of the open.

Turning the Mental Model into a Strategic Lever

There are many conceptions of Open Innovation in the industry. Mozilla takes a broad definition: the blurring of an organisation’s boundaries to take advantage of the knowledge, diversity, perspectives and ideas that exist beyond its borders. This requires several related things:

  • Being willing to search for ideas outside the organisation: Identify channels to create opportunities and systematically engage with a wide range of external resources.
  • Being willing and capable of acting upon those ideas: Integrating these external resources and ideas into the organisation’s own capabilities.

Mozilla’s Open Innovation Team has been formed to help implement a broad set of open and collaborative practices in our products and technologies. The main guiding principle of the team’s efforts is to foster “openness by design”, rather than by default. The latter is more of a mental model — strong , but abstract, broad and absolute. Often enough “openness by default” reflects an absence of strategic intent: without clarity on why you’re doing something, or what the intended outcomes are, your commitment to openness is likely to diminish over time. In comparison, “open by design” for us means to develop an understanding of how our products and technologies deliver value within an ecosystem. And to intentionally design how we work with external collaborators and contributors, both at the individual and organizational level, for the greatest impact and mutual value.

As part of our ongoing work we partnered with the Copenhagen Institute for Interaction Design (CIID) for a research project looking at how other companies and industries are leveraging open practices. The project reviewed a range of collaborative methods, including but also beyond open source.

Open Practises — uhm, means?

We define open practices as the ways an organization programmatically works with external communities — from hobbyists to professionals — to share knowledge, intellectual property, work, or influence in order to shape a market toward a specific business goal. Although many of these methods are not new, technology has often made them particularly attractive or useful (e.g. crowdsourcing at scale). Some are made possible only through technology (e.g. user telemetry). Used thoughtfully, open practices can simultaneously build vibrant communities and provide competitive advantage.

Together with CIID we identified a wealth of companies and organizations from which we finally picked seven current innovators in “open” to learn from. We tried to avoid examples where community participation was mainly a marketing tactic. Instead we focused on those in which community collaboration was fundamental to the business model. Many of these organisations also share similarities to Mozilla as a mission-driven organisation.

In a series of blog posts we will share insights in how the different companies deliberately apply open practices across in their product and technology development. And we will also introduce a framework for open practices that we co-developed with CIID, structuring different methods of collaboration and interaction across organisational boundaries, which serves as a way to stimulate our thinking.

We hope that lessons learned from open and participatory practices in the technology sector are applicable across industries and that the framework and case studies will be useful to other organisations as they evaluate and implement open and participatory strategies.

If you’d like to learn more in the meantime, share thoughts or news about your projects, please reach out to the Mozilla Open Innovation team at openinnovation@mozilla.com.