Sep 29

Andy Oram

Andy Oram

If volunteer communities increasingly add value to business...

The bookstore business shelves used to be weighed down with books telling readers how to manage rank-and-file workers. Then, as the information age progressed, the books described how to manage executives and knowledge workers. The distribution of knowledge led further to books on how to manage relationships with vendors and customers, and finally on how to manage relationships with everybody in the world.

If value increasingly comes from communities of volunteers outside the compass of corporate management, isn't it only right to shift resources to support these communities? I have to deal with that question in my own field of computer documentation, where the shift to community production is as happening as fast as it is anywhere. (I examine this trend in a series of articles about community documentation.) But many industries could ask the same question I explore in this article: how can society shift its resources to support the important new source of value in communities?

Volunteerism needs support

The idea that volunteers play an important social role goes at least as far back as the idea of civil society. Jeremy Rifkin took it to an extreme in his 1995 book The End of Work, where he predicted that all production of goods and services would become automated and that almost everybody in the world would eventually find themselves unemployed.

Far-fetched as this scenario is, we can just look at current events to see that rising productivity is leading to increased unemployment (instead of sharing the wealth). So we might find it educational to consider Rifkin's suggestion for avoiding mass poverty and social disintegration: support the volunteers who offer the kinds of educational and social service work that don't contribute to corporate bottom lines, but make life much better for people.

We can even improve a bit on Rifkin, perhaps, by pointing out that volunteers are doing things that do contribute to corporate bottom lines, but are hard to reward.

Volunteers who are paid, of course, are no longer volunteers. Companies have hit upon an enormous number of intermediate forms of reward by now: invitations to focus groups and conferences, honorable mentions, free products, etc. Still, serious problems in the concept of rewarding volunteers have been publicized:

  • Rewards create incentives to game the system, which would ultimately lead productive volunteers to abandon the system as unfair.
  • Even when rewards are fair, they "crowd out" the original incentives that led volunteers to serve in the first place.
  • It's just plain impossible to determine how much each volunteer's contribution is worth.

The final point just listed is the killer. The reasons for it are easy to state: the ultimate value created by any new idea may lie far out in the future, and the give-and-take discussion around information makes it hard to trace a valuable idea to an individual or small group. Let's look at this problem more closely.

The value of information

We all have learned what The Cluetrain Manifesto told us, that markets are conversations. But markets used to transfer a predictable value back to the seller, so that the seller could hire workers and pay dividends. Conversations don't lead to value that's so easy to characterize--so what good is a market to a seller?

Sellers can still marshal the resources to turn ideas into products and services that people will pay for, but it's getting harder to be competitive that way. All companies in fast-moving industries compete fiercely, but a particular fear grips the major portals such as Google, Yahoo!, and Facebook (along with potentially major portals such as Microsoft and Second Life). This is because information can move faster than the agricultural or manufacturing capacity in olden times.

In computer documentation (as in journalism), certainly, it's becoming harder and harder to add value to what the community contributes for free. So the challenge becomes how to improve the community's offerings.

I find the key traits of value in documentation to be:

  • Availability--somebody has to write it in the first place. (Readers also need computers and Internet access in order to meet this goal.)
  • Findability--people need something better than current search techniques to find obscure documents, and particularly need help finding background when they read a document that assumes too much prior knowledge.
  • Quality--this covers such general and complex issues as accuracy, relevance, and readibility.

A particularly urgent aspect of quality is keeping a document up to date. Many a project has annoyed its users by starting out with reasonably good documentation and failing to keep it updated. Somehow, people who enjoyed writing something the first time lose interest in maintaining it. This is just as true for comments in source code and commercial books. (Many of my authors have built their reputations and businesses on books they've written, and despite good intentions have been unable to find time to update the books.) I myself have lived out the feeling of writing new documentation for a free software project and then lacking the motivation to go back to it.

Thus, companies and user consortia who want to direct resources toward making software more usable can consider:

  • Offering incentives that make the best people contribute, while trying to avoid invoking the crowding-out phenomenon.
  • Providing paths through documentation, so readers can find what they need in their particular state of knowledge. This task is an ongoing research project for any particular body of documentation.
  • Ensuring continuity, by tracking the need to update documents and finding people to do so.
  • Training contributors to do a better job and make the most of their efforts.

The last of the tasks interests me in particular, because it provides scope for offering my skills as an editor and O'Reilly's as a publisher. But we need some compensation for it.

I feel funny, of course, offering our services as editors or other quality providers when the original authors might not be paid. But if you accept that it's harder to recruit people for supporting roles than for leading roles, payment is justified.

To conclude, I think volunteers can be supported without being paid directly. If they know their work will be improved to be more useful and will have lasting value, they'll have more incentive to contribute.

So now that the bookstore business shelves tell us how to manage relationships with everybody in the world, where can they go from here? Either they'll tell us how to manage relationships with magical spirits or the bookstore business shelves will vanish from the market. Your guess as to which will happen first is as good as mine.

tags: open source, the long view, web 2.0  | comments: 5   | Sphere It

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Comments: 5

  adam [10.03.07 12:57 PM]

An issues with crowding out that I find interesting but I cant find any theory about it - is whether crowding out is effected by the established norms of an organisation.

Is it possible, for example, to create an environment where it is an acceptable part of the culture that some people get paid and some don't? And further that you _might_ get paid at some point for the work that you do voluntarily.

There is some documentation about how crowding out negatively effects open source development, but my feeling is that these organisations may have stumbled into the problem because they didn't anticipate payments might be needed, hence the culture wasn't ready for it, and this may have played a part in the rejection and failure of such initiatives.

It would be interesting to find examples of when crowding out _didn't_ occur or had little effect...and if this was due to the culture of the organisation being prepared for and accepting the issue implicitly or explicitly before it occured.

Any thoughts on this?


  Erik [11.19.07 09:21 AM]

If die original aothors not be paid, why shoul i pay external authors?

It is right, that it is be more difficult to find really leading person, but i think this persons would be organize for the future. Making money isn`t to create new big things. Look at yahoo or google in the beginning.

  Turbo Tom [12.02.07 12:03 PM]

What you say Erik is interesting, and I partly agree with you. However, please have a look on current FreeBSD or Linux distros. I can't see good organisation there. Compare it to goddamn Microsoft or commercial *NIXes where organisation IMO is much better, which leads to better standarisation and compatibility.

That's only my thought


  Lukasz Nowak [02.23.08 09:27 AM]

Your post is really interesting.
1.I still belive in pepole who are volunteers, espacially young volunteers. They are then become really good staff, whose are searching by headhunters.
2. Thanks for remember about The Cluetrain Manifesto. I've to finish this book.:-)

  Anthony R. Spector [06.30.08 04:37 AM]

Hi. I believe in caring, consideration and volunteerism, being responsible for ones actions and facing life.

I would like to move. I want to find a fairly open, considerate, volunteer oriented community. I figure if people volunteer a great deal they care about their schools, the way the community looks, the resources and mentoring for schools and youn people, etc.

More later. Please email me with your comments.

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