ICT Ecosystems: On the Open Road

Whether it is software, standards or architectures, people tend to think — and argue — about technological openness in individual silos. Harvard University’s Open ePolicy Group, in its recently released Roadmap for Open ICT Ecosystems, urges people to apply and manage openness across an entire ICT ecosystem.

As discussed in last week’s piece, the Roadmap is the first resource publicly available that provides decision-makers and managers a toolkit for increasing an ICT ecosystem’s openness, and propelling the transformation of their organizations.

Open ICT ecosystems are not built overnight; they evolve, and must be continuously and aggressively managed. “Openizing” an ICT ecosystem — increasing its capacity to integrate open technologies, collaborative models and transparent processes — is best managed using a three-track approach, focused on scoping, policy-making and management.

Tools of the Trade — Track One: Scoping

Scoping is principally about setting priorities and understanding your baseline. It requires evaluating what you control — or can influence — and prioritizing needs with early input from users and partners. Scoping also means assessing what competencies exist within your organization, or can be tapped externally.

The Roadmap suggests using three tools for scoping: baseline audits, an Openness Maturity Model and the business case.

Baseline audits must be used selectively. Benchmarking takes time, money and personnel. It pays to focus on the services and functionality most critical to your business. Mapping standards, business processes and existing services can help identify “siloed” processes or systems that inhibit interoperability and service delivery. Failure to identify and document business processes and requirements before deployments can be costly.

To complement baseline audits, the Roadmap offers a new diagnostic tool — the Openness Maturity Model — to assess where an ICT ecosystem is and where it should be headed. Many capability maturity models exist to guide change management in an ICT environment. None, however, gauge openness across an entire ICT ecosystem. The Openness Maturity Model is a first attempt to provide such a tool.

The model does not precisely measure openness. It describes the road to open ICT ecosystems based on an examination of certain fundamental features including interoperability, open technology usage, business process linkages, acquisition strategies and collaborative development.

By organizing baseline data into a broader framework, the Openness Maturity Model delivers two immediate benefits. First, it identifies areas where the balance between open and closed technologies is not producing optimal performance, interoperability or competition. Second, it can inform the assembly of a business case for any ICT initiative or deployment.

The Roadmap‘s third tool for scoping, the business case, is not routine for everyone, but it should be. Developing a comprehensive business case is critical for generating high-level support and wider organizational “buy in.”

The Roadmap emphasizes two points when building a business case: Consider more than just acquisition costs by applying a full cost accounting. And don’t pay for what you don’t need.

Reducing costs means deciding what functionality is really needed. Open ICT ecosystems offer the flexibility to add components and functionality later as needs change or services expand.

Track Two: Policymaking

With the second track to managing open ICT ecosystems, policymaking, the Roadmap concentrates on open standards, software and service orientation as the pillars of an open ICT ecosystem.

Increasing an ecosystem’s openness requires greater use of open standards. How? Open standards need champions and early successes. First, assign clear responsibility to an agency, department or inter-departmental group for the evaluation, adoption, monitoring and dissemination of standards. Second, select open standards initiatives that will serve as catalytic projects for interoperability, and publish best practices for others to follow.

Opening an ICT ecosystem is impossible without addressing software, the second pillar of an open ICT ecosystem. Open ICT ecosystems do not rely upon only one software development model. They rely on choice and competition to deliver the best, cheapest, fastest solutions. Open source does not define an open ICT ecosystem, but its presence is vital as an agent of transformation and innovation.

ICT ecosystems need a certain critical mass of open source to ensure meaningful choices. Does this imply that an enterprise or government should passively await the arrival of open source? No. Even with balanced, non-discriminatory policies in place, vendors may not change until facing the possibility of losses. To ensure that enough software choices exist to actually change an ecosystem, it may be necessary to actively promote open source. For example, encourage open source deployments, when the business case supports it, to achieve a critical user base.

The third pillar of open ICT ecosystems is a component-based, service-oriented architecture (or SOA). Replacing the installed base is often not an option, given costs or other constraints. SOAs offer a way to retain legacy systems that still fulfill business functions, allowing them to work with new components. Reusable components — the building blocks of an SOA — provide the flexibility to upgrade, retire or retain legacy systems as the business case dictates.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Opening an ICT ecosystem means changing people’s behavior. And procurement drives behavior. Establishing policies to promote open standards, interoperability or software choice without addressing procurement will simply make openness a paper tiger.

A few procurement rules will help drive real change:

  • Mandate interoperability in procurement decisions, with a preference for open standards where they are applicable, mature and widely used.
  • Require technology and brand neutrality in procurement specifications to prevent lock-in to a single vendor, data format or technology.
  • Factor the availability of community support and maintenance into procurement decisions. Such networks can be an invaluable source of skills, services and feedback unavailable internally or from vendors.
  • Link final payments to an auditor’s confirmation that a system or solution complies with policies on open standards and related procurement terms. This will ensure that suppliers deliver the openness promised.

Track Three: Management

Management is always an ongoing effort, but open ICT ecosystems pose special challenges. By definition, they involve greater collaboration, more coordination, new choices and complex trade-offs. They are heterogeneous and rapidly evolving. This places a premium on good management and constant monitoring. Managers must be active and pragmatic — balancing intervention, facilitation and testing on a case-by-case basis. They must manage in ways that change the ICT ecosystem, without trying to engineer everything.

One invaluable tool is system-wide audits that evaluate performance across business units. Common elements such as open standards may be managed centrally and measured across an enterprise or government. Individual agencies or units, however, must remain accountable for decisions on investment and business needs.

The Roadmap‘s message is simple: Open ICT ecosystems drive efficiency, growth and innovation for enterprises, government and society. With active management and collaboration, opening an ICT ecosystem can unlock newfound comparative advantage and market opportunities.

Jeffrey A. Kaplan is the Founder and Director of the Open ePolicy Group, based at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. He can be reached at: [email protected]. The Open ePolicy Group and the Roadmap can be found at cyber.law.harvard.edu/epolicy.

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