Sustaining symbiotic collaborations

- How to manage tensions to sustain firm and open source software community collaboration

Companies have increasingly turned to online communities as a source of innovation and collaboration. Software development companies, more than others, have committed to create this type of collaboration (i.e. sponsored open source projects), yet many of them find it challenging to sustain this collaboration because of the competing priorities and goals. This research sought to provide a model to help understand and navigate the challenges of maintaining this type of collaborations.

Today’s organizations increasingly tap into knowledge residing outside of their organizational boundaries to improve their competitiveness. One way to tap into this knowledge is to create collaborations with alternative forms of organizing, like in the software industry where firms have been sponsoring their own open source communities. In such an arrangement, a sponsoring firm and its community are mutually dependent (symbiosis) in the pursuit of a shared open source project. However, the implications of organizing while being in this type of collaboration is often poorly understood by sponsoring firms that still lack knowledge of this type of collaboration and tackle them like a traditional inter-organizational collaboration. In light of the strategic and economical significance of such collaboration for a sponsoring firm, it leads to raise questions on what the challenges involved are and how the collaboration can be made sustainable over time, so to meet the goal of both sponsoring firm and community.

In order to address these open question, this research has developed a model that highlights the tensions occurring within the firm and its community collaboration, while it singles out the responses to the tensions and their impact on the unfolding of the collaboration. The model is based on the findings of an in-depth qualitative study, covering the 14 years life span of a community and its sponsoring company that committed its core product to be a firm sponsored open source project.

The model represented in Figure 1 shows a process that is composed by three main stages recurring over time in a collaboration between a firm and its community. The assumption underlining its development is the presence of competing demands originating in the different nature and goals of the two forms of organizing. As result of competing demands tensions are likely to arise across four different dimensions of the collaboration, namely, action, identification, input, and output. Each tension is followed by one or more responses according to one of five logics identified, namely, suppressing, splitting, opposing, abstaining, and accommodating. The choice of a response logic will affect the state of the tension, according to three possible outcomes: attenuation, temporary attenuation or reinforcement. On the bases of the outcome obtained the collaboration will unfold accordingly.

Tensions in firm-community collaborations

In a firm-community collaboration, the study found four dimensions where competing demands re-occurred over time and lead up to tensions.

The actions with repercussions on the collaboration is one of the dimensions where tensions emerge. In this dimension, there are competing demands on how actions should be performed. One tension results from the demands for transparent and opaque action. Transparent action is of crucial importance for the members of a community to be able to effectively coordinate and direct the collaborative work. However, action opacity is favored and sometimes required by companies. For instance, a company may want to keep its strategy confidential till its launch, which contrasts with the demand for transparency of the community.

”In a firm-community collaboration, the study found four dimensions where competing demands re-occurred over time and leadup to tensions”

An additional tension originates in the competing demands for actions being both predictable and unpredictable when affecting the collaboration. The action predictability is crucial to ease collaboration, but action unpredictability is one of the paths that can lead to innovations.

The input to the collaboration is one more dimension where tensions emerge. In this respect, the research identified the existence of two sets of competing demands that can cause tensions. The demands for input being from insider and outsider sources, prompts a tension concerning the extent to which a contribution should be eligible for inclusion in the project. Furthermore, a second source of tension stems from demands for standardized and varied input, which are demands that bring into question the characteristics of a contribution. Both tensions, if neglected and poorly managed can drive down participation and contributions, weakening the collaboration.

”Companies setting up this type of collaboration need to not underestimate the multiplicity of dimensions presenting competing demands”

The output of the collaboration is the third dimension where tension emerge. The development of a shared output is accompanied by competing demands concerning its licensing being open and proprietary, where each one of the demand is distinctive of the community and the sponsoring firm, respectively. These competing demands, cyclically, lead to a tension that impinges on the business models of the parties involved as well as on their commitment to provide input to the project.

The actors’ identification with the parties forming the collaboration is the fourth dimension where tensions emerge. The actors participating in a sponsored project are subject to competing demands of individual and collective identification. As a result, a tension emerges leading actors to question their belonging to the collaboration, which in turn affects their ability of choosing appropriate ways of acting in it.

The four dimensions with their tensions are influenced by one another, which implies that a response can trigger tension in a different dimension of the collaboration.

Responses to address tensions

The tensions can be addressed by adopting a number of responses. This research has identified responses according to five logics.

A suppressing response logic underlines the type of response where one set of demands are deliberately disregarded. For example, a change in the product design based only on the ideas of the sponsoring firm developers, while disregarding all suggestions offered by community members. Differently, a splitting response logic underlines responses where the competing demands are each addressed separately. For instance, the separation of the same product in two versions. An opposing response logic encompasses responses where both demands are considered legitimate, but one set of demands are deliberately favored and supported. For instance, the sponsoring firm exclusively advertises the proprietary version of the product, jointly developed with the community, and avoids to mention the existence of an open source version. An abstaining response logic implies a deliberate choice of not addressing a tension. It is usually not adopted by the sponsoring firm because of its institutional role from which more active responses are expected. An accommodating response logic underlines responses aimed at addressing the demands of both firm and community while considering their interdependence. For example, the sponsoring firm develops a business model where the open source code is central to the core product while it creates value on other complements or services.

The research findings suggest that the choice of a response logic should be evaluated with a holistic approach that considers both the likely outcome and its impact on other tensions’ dimensions. Otherwise, a choice based solely on the outcome, may lead to additional tensions that are detrimental to the collaboration longevity.

Outcomes of the responses to tensions

The distinction between outcomes allows to understand the ways in which a firm-community collaboration can unfold. The study found three outcomes, each one leading to a different unfolding path.

Figure 1. Conceptual model of a symbiotic firm-community collaboration

The tension temporary attenuation results from the apparent management of the competing demands that are actually not fully addressed (i.e. a splitting response). The reinforcing of the tension is the result of a greater polarization between the demands, which heighten the existing tension and can prompt new tensions (i.e. opposing and suppression responses). Differently, the tension attenuation is the result of responses that reduce both the competing demands and create stability (i.e. accommodating response).

The findings suggest that no single outcome is to be favored because it is dependent on the situation and context. However, to allow the sustaining of the collaboration, it is crucial to enable periods with decreased tensions.

Conclusion: navigating a symbiotic collaboration by understanding tensions implications

The model conceptualized provides a tool to better understand and navigate the symbiotic collaboration dynamics entailed in a firm sponsored open source project with emphasis on the fun-damental aspect of the emerging tensions. The focus on tensions stems from the inherent competing demands of a collaboration between firm and community. The model distinguishes three main elements that need to be attended in order to sustain the collaboration, which include tension, response to address tensions and lastly the outcome of such response with its implication on the unfolding of the collaboration.

Companies setting up this type of collaboration need to not underestimate the multiplicity of dimensions presenting competing demands. A sponsoring firm to sustain its collaboration with a community will have to actively engage with the tensions using a holistic approach, which considers the effect across both tension’s dimensions and time. A sponsoring firm should avoid retreating to response logics where its own sole interests are prioritized over the ones of the collaboration because it would likely reinforce tensions to the point of its disintegration. Lastly, all actors that are concerned with any of the tensions’ dimensions should be directly engaging in the collaboration to develop a sensibility towards the competing demands. This will increase the actors’ ability to manage the tension.


Elia Giovacchini
PhD, Researcher at Stockholm Business School – Stockholm University.
Elia’s research interests include organizational change, interorganizational collaborations and open innovation with a particular focus on the high-tech sector.

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