Innersource: A Guide to the What, Why, and How

by | Sun 25 Jun 2017

In recent years innersource is a term that has cropped up more and more. As with all new things in technology, there has been a healthy mix of interest and suspicion around what exactly innersource is (and what it isn’t).

As a consultant I work with a range of organizations, large and small, across various markets (e.g. financial services, technology etc) to help them bring innersource into their world. So, here is a quick guide to what innersource is, why you might care, and how to get started.

What is Innersource?

In a nutshell, ‘innersource’ refers to bringing the core principles of open source and community collaboration within the walls of an organization. This involves building an internal community, collaborative engineering workflow, and culture.

This work happens entirely within the walls of the company. For all intents and purposes, the company develops an open source culture, but entirely focused on their own intellectual property, technology, and teams. This provides the benefits of open source collaboration, community, and digital transformation, but in a safe environment, particularly for highly regulated industries such as financial services.

Innersource is not a product or service that you buy and install on your network. It is instead a term that refers to the overall workflow, methodology, community, and culture that optimizes an organization for open source style collaboration.

Why do people Innersource?

Many organizations are very command-and-control driven, often as a result of their industry (e.g. highly regulated industries), the size of the organization, or how long they have been around.

Command-and-control driven organizations often hit a bottleneck in efficiency which results in some negative outcomes such as slower Time To Market, additional bureaucracy, staff frustration, reduced innovation, loss of a competitive edge, and additional costs (and waste) for operating the overall business.

An unfortunate side effect of this is that teams get siloed, and this results in reduced collaboration between projects and teams, duplication of effort, poor communication of wider company strategic goals, territorial leadership setting in, and frankly…the organization becomes a less fun and inspiring place to work.

Pictured: frustration.

While the benefits of open source have been clearly felt in reducing costs for consuming and building software and services, there has also been substantive value for organizations and staff who work together using an open source methodology. People feel more engaged, are able to grow their technical skills, build more effective relationships, feel their work has more impact and meaning, and experience more engagement in their work.

It is very important to note that innersource is not merely about optimizing how people write code. Sure, workflow is a key component, but innersource is fundamentally cultural in focus. You need both: If you build an environment that (a) has an open and efficient peer-review based workflow. and (b) you build a culture that supports cross-departmental collaboration and internal community, the tangible output is unsurprisingly, not just better code, but better teams, and better products.

What are the BENEFITS of innersource for an organization?

There are number of benefits for organizations that work in an innersource way:

  • Faster Time To Market (TTM) – innersource optimizes teams to work faster and more efficiently and this reduces the time it takes to build and release new products and services.
  • Better code – a collaborative peer-review process commonly results in better quality code as multiple engineers are reviewing the code for quality, optimization, and elegance.
  • Better security – with more eyeballs on code due to increased collaboration, all bugs (and security flaws) are shallow. This means that issues can be identified more quickly, and thus fixed.
  • Expanded innovation – you can’t successfully “tell” people to innovate. You have to build an environment that encourages employees to have and share ideas, experiment with prototypes, and collaborate together. Innersource optimizes an organization for this and the result is a permissive environment that facilitates greater innovation.
  • Easier hiring – young engineers are growing up in a world where they can cut their teeth on open source projects to build up their experience. Consequently, they don’t want to work in dusty siloed organizations, they want to work in an open source way. Innersource (as well as wider open source participation) not only makes your company more attractive, but it is increasingly a requirement to attract the best talent.
  • Improved skills development – with such a focus on collaboration with innersource, staff learn from each other, discover new approaches, and rectify bad habits due to peer review.
  • Easier performance/audit/root cause analysis – innersource workflow results in a digital record of your entire collaborative work. This can make tracking performance, audits, and root cause analysis easier. Your organization benefits from a record of how previous work was done which can inform and illustrate future decisions.
  • More efficient on-boarding for new staff – when new team members join the company, this record of work I outlined in the previous bullet helps them to see and learn from how previous decisions were made and how previous work was executed. This makes on-boarding, skills development, and learning the culture and personalities of an organization much easier.
  • Easier collaboration with the public open source world – while today you may have no public open source contributions to make, if in the future you decide to either contribute to or build a public open source project, innersource will already instill the necessary workflow, process, and skills to work with public open source projects well.

What are the RISKS of innersource for an organization?

While innersource has many benefits, it is not a silver bullet. As I mentioned earlier, innersource is fundamentally about building culture, and a workflow and methodology that provides practical execution and delivery.

Building culture is hard. Here are some of the risks attached:

  • It takes time – putting innersource in place takes time. I always recommend organizations to start small and iterate. As such, various people in the organization (e.g. execs and key stakeholders) will need to ensure they have realistic expectations about the delivery of this work.
  • It can cause uncertainty – bringing in any new workflow and culture can cause people to feel anxious. It is always important to involve people in the formation and iteration of innersource, communicate extensively, reassure, and always be receptive to feedback
  • Purely top-down directives are often not taken seriously – innersource requires both a top-down permissive component from senior staff and bottom-up tangible projects and workflow for people to engage with. If one or the other is missing, there is a risk of failure.
  • It varies from organization to organization – while the principles of innersource are often somewhat consistent, every organization’s starting point is different. As such, delivering this work will require a lot of nuance for the specifics of that organization, and you can’t merely replicate what others have done.

How do I use Innersource at my company?

In the interests of keeping this post concise, I am not going to explain here how to build out an innersource program here, but to share some links some other articles I have written for how to get started:

One thing I would definitely recommend is hiring someone to help you with this work. While not critical, there is a lot of nuance attached to building the right mix of workflow, incentives, messaging, and building institutional knowledge. Obviously, this is something I provide as a consultant (more details), so if you want to discuss this further, just drop me a line.

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