“Yes, and …” reflections on Open Source Thinking

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Photograph of Rosemary by Sidney Kwiram

‘Openness isn’t the end; it’s the
Margaret Heffernan, 2012

Bob MacKenzie


Margaret Heffernan’s maxim neatly sums up our journey thus far through ‘open source thinking’. Arriving at publication time, we realise that we’ve only scratched the surface of this fascinating and important topic. So we’re left with more questions than answers. Nevertheless, we’re beginning to glimpse intriguing possibilities. Since we wrote the call for papers last year, we have been inspired not only by a brilliant set of articles in response, but also by a rippling flow of ‘yes, and …’ conversations and debates among ourselves and with others.

The title of this edition of e-Organisations and People (e-O&P) came to us after watching a TED talk given by Patrick Finn of the University of Calgary, in which he postulates the need to reorient university learning towards ‘loving communication’ and ‘open source thinking’ (Finn 2012). In a critique of prevailing university culture, Patrick argues passionately for ‘an open and dynamic set of thought’, and heralds a space and time where ‘something’s getting bigger’. Our subsequent exchanges have generated such questions as: How might open source thinking (OST) be manifest? How can such a beguiling process be facilitated? What brave new world might it lead to? Is there a ‘but’ in ‘yes, and …’ thinking? And who owns a ‘wise crowd’s’ thinking?

In our original invitation to contributors, we wondered aloud if we were in the midst of a major paradigm shift in terms of how information is owned, used, and managed. Were we moving from a proprietary model, in which someone owns information and extracts profit and personal benefit from that ownership, to a generative model, in which information and other precious resources could be used openly, for widespread benefit, while still giving credit to the ‘owner’?

Initially, we were thinking about ‘open source software’, ‘the internet’, ‘Wikipedia’, ‘Wikimedia’, ‘Creative Commons’, ‘social media’, the Open University, and massive open online (university) courses (MOOCs) that are freely available online, to name but a few examples. Such developments enable us to create and share what we know, while acknowledging the contribution of the ‘original’ thinker(s). We soon realised, however, that these examples formed only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, ‘open source thinking’ may be changing profoundly our socially constructed ‘reality’ – our ‘social architecture’.

Reflections on ripples, by Rosemary Cairns

At this stage of our journey through ‘open source thinking’, we’re led to surmise that as this shift is percolating inwards, upwards and outwards, it is changing many of our systems in ways that are only slowly becoming evident. We hadn’t seen it fully before, because we had no commonly agreed name for such a profound shift that has been occurring beneath the radar.

Two fascinating questions in particular have arisen for us, as we worked on this issue in a swirl of ‘yes, and…’ conversations. One is how to identify the many ways in which open source thinking is reshaping our social and corporate relationships at the same time as our environment is becoming more virtual, and correspondingly less face-to-face. The other concerns the nature and role of ‘critical thinking’ and ‘competition’ in an era of ‘yes, and …’ conversations. Is there still a place for critical thinking when one uses a ‘generative’ thinking style that builds on the contributions of others? When corporations are beginning to reach far beyond their ‘boundaries’, even to competitors, to crowd source new ideas (a fascinating process described in their article by Julia Goga-Cooke and her colleagues) , what implications does this have for the market economy?

As guest editors, we’ve enjoyed many rich conversations around these two questions, for example over lunch with Martin Gilbraith in London in early February. We are now looking forward to similarly enriching and mind-stretching conversations during our post-publication workshop in Brighton over 2 and 3 August.

As Marjorie Kelly notes, once we have a name for a phenomenon (if the name is a useful one) we can then see more clearly how that phenomenon is present all around us (Kelly 2012). Thus the value of naming the change – of calling this process ‘open source thinking’ – is clear. Just as Marjorie’s phrases ‘extractive ownership’ and ‘generative ownership’ encapsulate two very different ways of looking at the rights, obligations and nature of ownership, the terms ‘proprietary thinking’ and ‘open source thinking’ offer possibilities for making sense of a myriad of changes occurring in our world. And as Ken Banks suggests, ‘open source thinking’ is not just an approach to generating innovative ideas and practices, it also has the capacity to change power relationships radically. And this potential gives rise to both opportunities and dangers, depending on one’s viewpoint.

Convergence into open space, by Rosemary Cairns

The impact of OST: mobile banking and international aid

Think of mobile money, which is creating such dramatic changes in Africa. When mobile banking first developed in Kenya, making it possible for people to use mobile phones to send and receive money without having to go physically to a bank, banks were worried. They had invested millions in creating buildings and elaborate systems to manage money. Now, if people could move money easily through their mobile phones, without ever setting foot in a bank or having a bank account, would there still be a need for bank buildings – or for banks at all? However, having seen ‘mobile money’ at work, banks have been coming round to regard this as an opportunity to expand their business without having to invest in concrete and mortar. At the same time, people are coming to realise how their money can grow the economy in poor rural areas of their country where it had never been practical for banks to set up a branch.

International aid agencies now increasingly use mobile money to distribute aid, which in turn is reinforcing a change in how aid works. There is a shift from giving goods to giving cash, which allows people to choose which of their needs they wish to meet, and how they will do so. Often, they choose to repay debt to local traders, which resuscitates regional economies in drought- or conflict- affected areas of the world. Recently some donors have been giving directly to recipients, thus

obviating the role of international aid agencies as middle men. And, as Steve Perry explains lucidly in his insightful article about strategic planning in resource-rich Moçambique, development brings in many more players, including those with a nose for commercial gain, as well as many more ideas about what to do. Hence international agencies being forced to re-evaluate what it is they do that offers value, which is primarily in the area of sharing and offering skills and knowledge. This gives rise to the possibility of a much more equal relationship between donor and recipient, based on neighbour-to-neighbour principles, rather than on those of expert-to-novice. Since this in turn requires institutional change, ‘open source thinking’ thus becomes – in Ken Banks’ vivid phrase – a vehicle for ‘disruptive development’.

OST’s impact on other social institutions

Other key social institutions are struggling with similar existential questions. When you can learn online from a university rather than paying thousands of dollars or pounds – or similarly large amounts of other currencies – for the privilege of attending the physical institution itself, what does that mean for universities, degrees, and the process of learning? If your ‘class’ is made up of people located all around the world who you may never meet, who come from dramatically different backgrounds and cultures, how does that change the discussions in your virtual ‘classroom’? What should universities invest in, if much of their growing student body – and a growing number of their faculty – will rarely if ever set foot in physical lecture theatres, seminar rooms, libraries or campuses?

Eroding age-old structures, by Rosemary Cairns

The shifting role of the internet

In corporate or organisational terms, how does one structure a virtual organisation or team when its members come from all around the globe and may never meet in person? How does one make access to such a team or organisation as equal as possible when participants may speak a variety of languages and hail from many cultures? And what does it mean for the notion of ‘work’ if one never goes to a company office to earn one’s living, but instead operates from one’s home or on the road?

If the internet provides a principal means by which ‘open source thinking’ can proliferate around the world, will it shift from being a ‘toll road’ requiring payment for access, towards becoming a universal open highway to which everyone, no matter what their resources or geographic location, should have free access? If so, how do we achieve this goal? And if we succeed in this, how do we deal with those who use the internet for destructive purposes – whether individually, to bully targeted others, or societally, as when governments ‘turn off the switch’ through censorship and access control?

Implications of OST for facilitators

Facilitators – who have expertise in planning and facilitating meetings – see both opportunity and challenge in these developments. Facilitators are used to working with ‘yes, and …’ approaches to problem solving, and much of their work encourages participants to share and build on a range of ideas. Movements such as Occupy, while protesting against economic inequality, also spend a great deal of time training ordinary people in how to facilitate meetings and to ensure that every voice is heard.

Open source thinking, with ‘yes, and …’ approaches, is solving practical problems, such as designing buildings with widespread public involvement, in ways that also strengthen local democracy. As Tim Merry notes, participatory democracy is reinforced one project at a time as citizens and developers both learn that well-designed public processes can reflect the needs and wishes of the majority, whilst taking care to avoid disadvantaging minorities unduly.

Thus facilitators may be, in many ways, uniquely equipped to work with open source thinking, and to support others in doing so. However, as the worlds of work and ideas increasingly inhabit virtual space, facilitators are finding that they must learn new ways to ply their trade by adding to their existing repertoire. How does one create, in virtual space, the psychic infrastructure that underpins the face-to-face meetings we’ve been used to? How does one ‘brainstorm’ in virtual space? How does one encourage problem-solving in virtual space? How does one facilitate ‘yes, and …’ conversations in virtual meetings that bring together people who grew up in many different cultures, with different understandings of how one should behave in public and private, with different feelings about the value of silence and speech, and with different levels of comfort about conflict being expressed publicly? What are the implications of the need to develop virtual facilitation skills?

Some health warnings about OST

As with any other perceived paradigm shift, open source thinking is raising new problems and challenges as well as new opportunities and possibilities. One of those challenges is in identifying ownership of ideas in a ‘yes, and …’ environment. For example, within higher education, as well as opening up access to unimaginable library resources, internet access has led to both increased instances and detection of plagiarism, by everyone from university students to well-established authors and journalists. International lawyers such as Enrico Bonadio are preoccupied with the inherent conflict between copyright law and freedom of speech as a basic human right, for example in the context of file-sharing (Bonadio 2011). And how does OST affect the hallowed principle and practice of ‘critical thinking’ in universities? As Patrick Finn has written to us in a recent e-mail:

‘I did not add a new section on Critical Thinking – though Rosemary said it might be good to discuss it when we meet in August. There’s a rather long explanation that goes with how we go about thinking critically, but I want to make sure that you understandI am actually for training in rhetoric, logic and formal analysis – my dispute is with what now passes for critical thinking and is really a degraded – ironically uncritical – version of its more thorough and generous ancestors.’

(Finn, personal communication 10.2.13; our emphasis)

What you’ll discover in this edition

The articles in this issue explore the processes, manifestations and implications of ‘open source thinking’. How does one prepare one’s self to engage in OST? How does open source thinking change the nature of our institutions? How does open source thinking affect power relationships? What new, additional facilitation skills must we develop?

In our introduction “Yes, and …” reflections on Open Source Thinking, we (Rosemary Cairns and Bob MacKenzie) set the context for the articles which follow, and offer a snapshot of the rich and compelling contents of each.  We invite you to consider the potential of open source thinking (OST) to make a positive difference in our lives, and we acknowledge that we’re only just beginning to understand its implications, especially for facilitators and developers around the world. We’re left with more questions than answers, and we’re excited about prospects. The agenda raised by contributors will keep us all busy.

Patrick Finn’s article Open Source Thinking: How to fix everything from education to dinner is the passionate and beguiling appeal which prompted our decision to invite contributions to this themed anthology. It throws down a challenge to us to re-think our approach to thinking. In effect, Patrick envisages a form of generous and respectful ‘loving communication’ and ‘open source thinking’ that harks back to classical times, when rhetoric, logic and analysis inspired the flowering of wonderful ideas in the spirit of co-inquiry, long before that term was coined.

Alone together: walking to Open Source Thinking in the Labyrinth by Alison Piasecka offers us a valuable opportunity to open ourselves up to OST, as a prelude to co-creating ideas and understanding from our different disciplines, perspectives and experiences.

Rowena Davis writes in Creating the conditions for all voices to be heard: strategies for working with differences about how she uses systems-centred theory (SCT), chaos theory, and the System for Analyzing Verbal Interaction (SAVI) framework to explore and reconcile differences arising from diversity of communication styles, and to encourage people to be open to each other’s respective viewpoints.

Engagement 2.0: co-creating connection by Julia Goga-Cooke, Marzia Arico and Max Mockett draws on the pioneering work of Lynda Gratton and the Future of Work (FoW) project. They argue that, to be fit for the future, companies need fresh, well developed collaboration networks across traditional boundaries. Harnessing the wisdom of crowds is becoming crucial. The authors illustrate some of the learning they’ve co-created so far in the process of engaging employees and other stakeholders.

Marjorie Kelly holds out the prospect of a radically different way of doing business in Journey to a generative economy. In contrast to outmoded forms of extractive ownership, which are essentially exploitative and ultimately impoverishing, Marjorie identifies an innovative form of generative ownership that brings both economic and social benefit. As an example of the latter, she draws upon the mutually beneficial relationship between Coastal Enterprises Inc and the Maine lobster industry in the USA to make her case.

An inconvenient truth? The destiny of ICT4D rests with those it originally set out to help by Ken Banks is yet another eye-opener. Ken’s “inconvenient truth” is that Information and Communications Technology for Development (ICT4D) is currently attempting inappropriately to fix problems on behalf of local people who themselves can often understand and solve them much better. He argues that the whole development agenda is shifting, and he predicts a future of “disruptive development” – a major disconnect between what ‘we’ think needs to be done, and what those closest to the problems think needs to be done.

In Locally-led community development in Africa, Steve Perry tells how, when your work is to help poor and marginalised people improve their livelihood options, realising that the country in which your project is based sits on a treasure trove fundamentally changes the discourse. Steve shares what happened when the NGO CARE opened up its planning process in Moçambique to be as inclusive as possible His story illustrates how pulling up many more seats around the strategy table also brought in fundamentally new thinking about options.

Tim Merry writes in Insights from Civic Engagement: co-creating new beginnings and trust about what he’s learned from leading civic engagement and public consultation processes. He explores the purpose and one of the core principles of authentic engagement – trust, in the context of work carried out in Nova Scotia, Canada. Tim makes it clear that this is not simple work, nor is it for the faint-hearted. He also acknowledges how the act of writing his article has helped him to understand more profoundly a number of important issues.

In Recognising, respecting and rewarding oddballs, Anil Gupta, Marianne Esders and colleagues describe how the Honey Bee Network in India began to search for novel sources of solutions to fundamental problems of development. This fundamentally shifted their understanding of the development process. Their approach is to look for resources in which poor people are rich and then use this richness as a building block of future development. They see this as the first open innovation platform, and they ask why wealthy donor agencies and so-called participatory development projects have signally ignored these developments. However, they are optimistic that, eventually, such authentic engagement with creative forces in any society will become axiomatic and accepted practice. The article also proposes a theory by which firms can benefit greatly by learning from creative communities through open innovation platforms at four levels: artefactual, analogic or metaphorical, heuristic and gestalt or configuration (Gupta 2012).

Finally, you’ll find the usual section on book reviews, Invitations and Notices concerning what’s going on in our networks.

What do you think about OST?

‘Openness isn’t the end; it’s the beginning!’

To keep going the conversations inspired by the articles in this issue of e-O&P, we’re rounding off this introductory piece, as we began, with Margaret Heffernan’s (2012) challenge.

We’re keen to hear your views, and we’ve created a virtual space for you to engage with us and each other online in the spirit of OST as a prelude to our coming together in person over 2 and 3 August in Brighton.


This edition e-O&P is another example of the close collaboration that’s been growing between AMED and IAF Europe. And it’s been co-created through countless ‘yes, and …’ conversations, both orally and in writing. As guest editors, we’d like to acknowledge the generous support that we’ve received from members of both networks. Publication could not have happened without the dedicated, expert and voluntary support of many people. In particular, we’d like to thank all the authors who appear in this issue, either for allowing us to re-publish an adapted version of an earlier work, or for writing something afresh on the theme of ‘Open Source thinking: possibilities for “yes, and …” conversations’. David McAra is the unsung hero of e-O&P, hidden away behind the scenes transforming raw text into aesthetically pleasing forms as he converts articles from Word to pdf, all the while dealing calmly with innumerable editorial and authorial demands upon his time. Linda Williams and Ned Seabrook of AMED are also constant sources of support behind the scenes. Linda beavers away on our web page amed.org.uk; following publication, Ned is a stalwart in disaggregating the online journal into individual pdf articles for those who prefer to read them in this way.

As guest editors, we can confirm that working on quarterly editions on e-O&P affords everyone concerned a uniquely privileged opportunity to be involved in a stimulating and worthwhile project of personal learning and development, as well as providing a valued service to a growing community of practice of developers. A major benefit is that you get to meet and learn with some wonderful people. So we’d like to extend this opportunity to as many of you as possible. If you’d like to explore this invitation further. We’d love to hear from you.

References and URLS

Bonadio, E. (2011). “File Sharing, Copyright and Freedom of Expression.” European Intellectual Property Review 33(10): 20.

Finn, P. (2012). “Loving Communication.” TED Talk http://tedxyyc.com/speakers/patrick-finn/.

Heffernan, Margaret (2012). Dare to disagree. TED Talk, August 2012 http://www.ted.com/talks/margaret_heffernan_dare_to_disagree.html

Kelly, M. (2012). Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution. . San Francisco, Ca, Berrett- Koehler.

About the guest editors

Rosemary Cairns is editor of the IAF Europe Newsletter and a Certified Professional Facilitator. She holds a Master’s degree in human security and peace-building. Currently she is focusing on how evaluation can become an integral part of international development throughout projects and not just a bolt-on at the end. You can contact Rosemary at: rosemary.cairns@iaf-europe.eu.

Bob MacKenzie is Professor of Management Learning with the IMCA Business School, Convenor of the AMED Writers’ Group and a member of the e-O&P Editorial Board. You can contact Bob at: bob_mackenzie@btopenworld.com.

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