Leadership in Open Source Communities: Democracy vs. Bureaucracy

Assistant Professor Siobhán O’Mahony teamed up with Assistant Professor Fabrizio Ferraro of the University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, to conduct a two-part study that relied on ethnographic and quantitative methods to understand how an open source community developed a stable governance model over a 13-year period. Their work was recently published in the October 2007 issue of the Academy of Management Journal. The scholars’ investigation focused on the Debian Linux community, which produces a free and open source version of the Linux operating system. Their research examined how this grass roots community dealt with the problem of leadership in the absence of any pre-existing hierarchical structure. O’Mahony and Ferraro’s research shows how a seemingly non-hierarchical community that exists outside of formal hierarchical bureaucratic structures developed a shared notion of authority and a system of governance. In the case of Debian Linux, governance emerged through “grass roots” development (or bottom up) and evolved over time, rather than through the design of a formal bureaucratic system (top down system). By blending directly democratic mechanisms with bureaucratic structures, the community created a viable organization that could adapt with members’ needs. Individuals who became leaders did not do more technical work than others, but were more likely to engage in informal coordinating efforts across the community and link individiuals’ efforts to larger collective goals. These findings have implications for others seeking leadership in laterally organized projects or communities: the impact that your work has on others and your ability to connect people to the goals of the project may be more important than just the amount of effort you devote to the project.