I admit to being just a tad wary when a corporation embraces openness because how zealously they normally protect their intellectually property, and, in some cases, claim as their own that which is the product of nature.

That was my initial reaction to The Meaning of Open, a post on Google's blog that was being shared frenetically on Twitter just before the holidays. I'm glad that I gave it a chance, because it's a little gem in many ways. Here's what I like about it:

  • It shows that Google can be an effective spokesperson of openness. Google's position on openness is mostly pragmatic. This is not a true believers argument for openness which you might get from a FOSS partisan like Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Movement. I'm not knocking Stallman, he's a hero of mine, it's just that Google's message is made for the mainstream. Google's argument for openness is that it serves everyone better. Stallman's advocacy of FOSS is grounded in ethical principles (not exclusively), which can be debated and aren't especially persuasive.
  • The post uses stories to make the case for openness. It explains why open systems serve everyone better using the examples from their industry and historical cases. For instance, how drug company Merck published 800,000 gene sequences into the public domain reducing the cost of drug development for them and the entire drug industry. And how software developers fix open source software themselves and share fixes, immediately getting what they need while contributing to the common good. Stories that demonstrate benefits are a more effective tool of persuasion then standing on principle.
  • It quantifies the benefit of contributing to the common good with this handy formula: Reward = (Total value added to the industry) * (Our share of industry value) . This formula recognizes that it's good to invest in the collective structures that you rely on for success. Granted, the formula is limited to an industry context. Still, it's evidence of a me to we shift. I wonder if it can be translated into a community context. Any takers? 
  • The post describes what it takes to succeed in an open system: have more insight into how the system works, react more quickly to a fast moving system, be optimistic, and use long-term thinking. These are great tips for how to behave as an organization and individual in an open system where the economics of abundance can trump the economics of scarcity. 
  • Google's talk about openness is intellectually honest and models openness. They're frank about why they support of openness – it's good for business. And they make it clear that they're defining it in their own terms for their stakeholders. They aren't trying to argue or change the definition. This being said, the post closes with an understanding that Google's support of openness may have far reaching consequences. They're not blind to the impact of their strategy.

I will close with a counterpoint. While it's clear corporations are increasingly embracing openness, I believe they only do so when it serves their interests. They're legally obligated to generate financial returns to a tiny slice of society – shareholders. They are not designed to serve the common good. This places a natural limit on how open they can be. They will likely use a mix of property strategies to pursue their interests. Google offers an excellent example of this. Despite their passionate support of open standards and software, it'll be a cold day in hell before they make their search algorithm, the foundation of their core search business, freely available. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's just important to recognize the type of entity delivering the message about openness here. In my mind, there's only one thing completely open about Google – the question whether they can unfailingly support the digital commons when they're not designed to serve the common good.

What do you think?

Thumbnail source: perfect_hexagon on Flickr.

Neal Gorenflo


Neal Gorenflo | |

Neal Gorenflo is the executive director and co-founder of Shareable, an award-winning news, action, connection hub for the sharing transformation. An epiphany in 2004 inspired Neal to leave the

Things I share: Time with friends and family, stories, laughs, books, ideas, nature, resources, passions, my network.