FOSS as a Part of a Corporate Sustainability Plan

Article originally published in the May 2018 issue of Linux Journal

Free and open source software is a critical part of your company’s supply chain. Here’s why and how you can include it in your corporate sustainability plan.

In 1983 the United Nations convened a commission of 22 people to investigate the question of the worldwide environmental and social impact of human development. Four years later, in 1987, the commission released Our Common Future, more commonly known as the Brundtland Report in honour of Gro Harlem Brundtland, chairperson of the commission. This report detailed the very real socio-environmental issues facing humanity. One of its recommendations was for governments, organisations, and companies to start engaging in what it called sustainable development. That is, “…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Since then there’s been steep growth in the number of corporations that maintain and operate according to a corporate sustainability plan. These plans encompass environmental as well as social aspects of doing business. They encompass actions within an organisation—such as natural resource usage, diversity and inclusion, and fair treatment of employees—as well as those external to the organisation—such as the sustainability operations of their entire supply chain as well as the overall impact the corporation has on the Earth and its inhabitants.

The benefits of sustainability

A sustainability plan impacts every facet of an organisation’s operations and can take a fair bit of effort to implement and maintain. If that’s the case, then why are more corporations putting these plans into action every year? While it would be nice to think that this occurs for entirely altruistic reasons—taking care of the Earth and its inhabitants is simply the right thing to do, after all—the fact of the matter is that studies repeatedly show that properly implemented corporate sustainability plans are very good for the bottom line.

Innovations and profitability

Sustainability requires partnering and collaborating not only across groups within the organisation, but also with many external to it. These collaborations expose a corporation to new ideas and innovations in market, process, policy, and product, all of which can lead to improved profitability while moving the company toward its sustainabiity goals. Without the support and engagement of all employees, a sustainability plan will fail. Therefore the execution of a sustainability strategy requires a shift in management from the old style of command and control toward a modern style of trust, communication, and employee development. By empowering and training employees, a sustainable corporation improves its ability to execute plans while also increasing employee satisfaction and retention. Beyond just innovations, profitability is increased through reduced expenditures, entry into new markets, and a lower cost of capital.

Investments

Investments are also impacted, as more investors are now looking at a corporation’s sustainability plan as a deciding factor on where to place their money. When you think about it, it’s surprising that sustainability hasn’t been a primary investor consideration before now. The strategies that support a successful corporate sustainability plan, focusing on what’s good for society and the environment, are also those that do good for the company. Protecting the organisation’s value and supply chains enables it to ensure it will be around for a good, long while. That longevity—and plan to maintain it—is very appealing to investors in search of both stability and a positive return on their investments. Despite this, studies show that most high level corporate managers still don’t recognise the importance sustainability holds for investors. This provides a great opportunity for those managers who can launch and make a corporate sustainability plan successful before their competitors.

So, yes, corporate sustainability planning (when done properly) is that proverbial rising tide that floats all boats. However, for companies that rely upon technology to keep their business operating (read: all of them), there’s a major component that’s usually left out of their sustainability plan: the software.

Open source software is a part of your supply chain

Operating systems, databases, libraries, infrastructure management and orchestration… No matter what component, all software is a part of your company’s supply chain. How much do you know about it? Do you know what your company’s software supply chain looks like? How much of that chain is or depends upon free and open source software? If you haven’t investigated this before, you’ll likely be surprised by the answer. If you look at little deeper, you’ll be even more surprised to discover just how few people maintain and support the software on which your company relies to operate and do business.

However you look at it, this arrangement is fraught with sustainability concerns. Socially, allowing so few people to perform so much work for so little compensation is inappropriate and does not scale. From a business perspective, it’s very poor practice to rely upon suppliers who may burn out and disappear at any moment. This does nothing good for the longevity prospects for your organisation and dramatically inceases its risk profile.

Open source software is good for sustainability

Don’t get the wrong idea: I’m not here to spread Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (aka FUD) about having free and open source software projects as a part of your supply chain. Even a quick glance will show that you’re unlikely to receive as much value and flexibility from proprietary solutions (if they even exist). Proprietary software is incredibly expensive, less flexible, leads to vendor lock-in, and is at least as likely to disappear without notice. 90% of software startups fail, taking their products and their code with them. The high cost, low innovation, and equal risk of mortality for proprietary software makes it a less appealing solution when considering the longevity and sustainability of your own company. Free and open source solutions are simply the better option.

What is YOUR software supply chain?

The answer, then, is not to cut out the free and open source links in your supply chain. No, the actual answer is to include free and open source software in your corporate sustainability plan. Unlike proprietary software, free and open source (FOSS) solutions enable your company to take action to ensure that the FOSS projects themselves are sustainable. So, how can your company do that?

For starters, if you haven’t done so yet, take this opportunity to become very familiar with your company’s software supply chain. Certain links in that chain will be more important and more strategic than others. While your software sustainability efforts should include all of the links in the chain—FOSS or proprietary—you may find that it makes sense to focus more of your investment in these strategic links.

Build a culture of contribution

As you’re evaluating and integrating your software supply chain into your corporate sustainabilty plan, start communicating internally about the importance of this supply chain. This communication should be across the entire organisation, not simply constrained to the technical departments. By communicating and including the entire company, you open up more avenues for ideas and innovations in sustainability as well as start to build a culture of sharing and contribution that will aid in all your sustainability efforts, FOSS or otherwise.

That culture of contribution will be critical for the next step: empowering staff members to contribute back to the FOSS projects on which your company relies. Reporting bugs and requesting features is one way to contribute, but fixing bugs, adding features, and contributing those changes upstream to the main project is what will lead to improved project longevity. It often can make sense for a company to pay team members to work full time maintaining and enhancing strategic free and open source software projects, but even small contributions submitted by individuals scattered across the organisation can aggregate into a large amount of work toward sustaining projects on which your company relies. Making it easy for team members to contribute will make it much more likely that they will support the projects through their contributions. Remember, too, that FOSS projects need more than just programmers in order to thrive. Enabling contributions from your QA, design, marketing, and other departments will enhance the entire ecosystem of the free and open source software that enables your company to operate, adding to its longevity and reducing risk both for it and for your own company.

Share the load

As you review your software supply chain, consider the problem that each one of those links in the chain is there to solve. Your company is not the only one to have those problems. These are issues faced by many organisations, and no one company will be able to solve these shared problems.

Therefore the next step in integrating free and open source software into your corporate sustainability planning is to release the software your company has developed to solve problems shared by others. Of course this doesn’t mean you should necessarily release the software that provides legitimate market differentiation and value for your company, but there are undoubtedly several tools developed internally that are not of strategic market value but that solve specific problems. By releasing these tools, you enable collaboration with organisations that share similar problems.

By working together to solve these problems through free and open source software, all collaborators share the load of development. This allows them to benefit from the tool while also freeing up internal resources to focus on strategic value creation for their markets. In a case study created by Open Tech Strategies and released by the World Bank, collaboration on free and open source software tools led to a 200% return on investment for the collaborators. Sharing the burden of maintaining these tools ensures their longevity and stability while reducing institutional risk. The end result is a more sustainable business and a healtier free and open source software ecosystem.

Join a Foundation

Depending upon the free and open source software in your supply chain, one approach toward sustainability may be participating in the organisations and foundations formed to support projects that are strategic to your company. By joining organisations like Open Source Initiative, Eclipse Foundation, Apache Software Foundation, and the Linux Foundation, your organisation not only has a seat at the table when discussing the future of strategic FOSS projects, it also gets the opportunity to meet, discuss, and collaborate with companies it may not have had occasion to interact with otherwise. By bringing together disparate organisations and providing not only a shared purpose but also a safe environment for collaboration, these foundations enable member companies to learn from each other and to open the doors for new partnerships and innovations.

Think strategically

I’ve said it already in this article but it’s worth repeating that, just as with the rest of your corporate sustainability plan, it’s crucial that your company’s approach to supporting free and open source software projects be strategic. While it’s tempting to contribute to all FOSS projects equally—and certainly the projects themselves would not complain—from a sustainability point of view your organisation should try to focus its resources on those projects that make a material difference to your company. Material difference means that a project, were it to stop being developed or maintained, would severely impact the operations of your company. These are the FOSS projects most directly linked to your organisation’s longevity, and also makes them risk factors for your corporate sustainability plan.

In order to determine which projects are material to your corporation, you must be fully aware of your software supply chain. This involves not only looking at the free and open source software that allows your company to operate, but also digging deeper to learn on what projects those projects rely. It’s all well and good to acknowledge that the authentication library used for your product is material to company longevity, but if that library itself relies upon cryptographic functionality in another—woefully under-funded—project, your company may be exposed to unforeseen but preventable risks. Ignorance of your software supply chain is no defense against vulnerabilities. Cultivating an awareness of the entire ecosystem within which strategic and material FOSS projects operate will help secure corporate longevity and sustainability.

Make a business case

Focusing software sustainability efforts on material and strategic concerns makes it considerably easier to incorporate free and open source software into the business case for your company’s corporate sustainability plan. It may be tempting to skip this step, but if you do so studies show that it’s likely your sustainability plan will fail. When you pause to consider this, it makes perfect sense. Why should a corporation invest so many resources in shifting the way it does business, up to and including its very business model, if there is nothing in it for them? Again, setting aside altruistic appeals and the fact that taking care of the Earth and its inhabitants is just the right thing to do, being able to make a well-researched and detailed case that doing so is good for the bottom line makes it more likely that even the less environmentally- and socially-minded leaders in your company will get on board with the plan. Don’t simply list what changes will be necessary to enact a corporate sustainability plan, but also reveal exactly what is in it for the company for making this effort.

You’re all in this together

As mentioned earlier, it’s important for any corporate sustainability plan to create a culture of contribution across the entire organisation. If upper management does not communicate what the plan is meant to accomplish and why, it will fail to get the support of the employees who actually have to do the heavy lifting of implementing that plan. Without the support of the entire organisation, your corporate sustainability plan will fail. Sustainability must be a 360 degree effort, not simply something dictated from on high. All members and stakeholders of the company must understand what the sustainability plan is, what impact it will have, what part they specifically will play, and how they will make a difference to the overall outcome.

This communication is hard enough when the plan is simply about environmental and social concerns, issues with which most people are familiar, but it becomes much more difficult when unfamiliar concepts like “free software” and “open source” enter the mix. This is why it’s so important to begin the discussion as early as possible. It can take some time for people to understand that “contribute back to free and open source software projects” can be as meaningful and impactful to the corporate sustainability plan as “reduce water usage,” “use energy from renewable sources,” or “eliminate the gender/race pay gap.”

To help with this communication, rather than dictating implementation details to middle management, company leaders should instead set software sustainability goals for each team or department and then allow each group to define how it can best contribute toward those goals. For technical departments their contributions may be as straightforward as providing patches or releasing internal tools, while less technical departments may come up with less obvious approaches to helping the effort. By empowering each team to approach the problem in its own way, the company is not only encouraging innovation but it’s also building trust within its ranks. This trust, as mentioned before, increases the effectiveness not only of the sustainability plan but also of other operations undertaken by these teams. This trust also leads to higher employee satisfaction and retention. The overall culture of the company evolves into one that is more collaborative, innovative, and therefore sustainable.

Keep yourself accountable

A vital part of any corporate sustainability plan is the company holding itself accountable for delivering on its promises to itself, to its stakeholders, and to the communities on which it relies. Fostering a culture of collaboration includes supporting open communication. That openness must permeate all levels of the company. Embracing and supporting free and open source software and their underlying values can help to cultivate the communication required for accountability. Instituting inner sourcing is a good way to encourage collaboration, communication, and cross-functional accountability on your corporate sustainability plan.

Accountability can also be included at an organisational level by way of performance reviews. For this to work, each employee must understand how they contribute to the overall corporate sustainability plan so that they can work toward meeting their particular goals. This is especially important at the executive level. When leaders are held accountable for their sustainability strategies and plans, it reinforces the importance of the effort to the organisation and encourages participation by all members. Reporting on the company’s progress on its sustainability plan also provides accountability to external stakeholders like investors, partners, and customers. For many companies, it can be uncomfortable at first to embrace this form of open communication both internally and externally, but if they are able to make this shift they’ll reap the benefits of sustainability. It can be a difficult journey, but it’s one entirely worth taking.