Forum .LRN Q&A: Response to continuation of dotLRN Governance

Posted by Alfred Essa on
For the record...this was one of the emails sent to Ben trying to persuade him to join the dotLRN effort. I will let the community reach whatever conclusions it will..

Dear Ben,

Thanks. I do understand that you need to what you need to do. I do hope that you will reconsider. If not, I appreciate your working with us on the transition.

There are multiple models of successful open source communities and the one you advocate is only one of them. The model you propose fits well with open source projects that have an entirely technical impetus and motivation (developers wanting to scratch an itch). dotLRN did not originate this way nor we can we expect it to evolve if it is left to developers alone. But let us also realize that you are trading on an ambiguity. You keep positioning yourself as a developer with purist open source motives. Please do not forget that you are also the CEO of a company in competition with other companies and developers in the community.

In your model all power resides in Ben and OpenForce. You would be the sole gatekeeper and make all technical decisions about the platform. Your intentions and allegiance to open source principles is irrelevant. There is an inherent conflict of interest as long your company stands to benefit from dotLRN. I am *not* asserting that you or OpenForce will act contrary to the community’s interest. But given human nature, we need to ensure that whenever there is a potential for conflict of interest we have mechanisms in place to mitigate it. Technical disagreements have arisen and will arise within the developer community about dotLRN. Unless we provide a deliberative model to resolve them, these disputes will turn into personality battles and acrimony. We have already seen this deterioration and in the long run it will only damage dotLRN’s reputation. In your governance model, the Technical Advisory Board would have only nominal powers since you would have ultimate say and final authority over *all* technical decisions. Yes, the gatekeeper would be re-elected a year from now. By then dotLRN could also be dead.

Technical governance has to be linked with marketing and sustainability. In your model there is no feedback loop from users, marketing, or strategic objectives of the platform. What’s the business model for dotLRN in your plan? If one doesn’t exist, how will it be developed? Whose responsibility is it? The dotLRN business plan has to tie together technical, marketing, and strategic objectives. Here again there are two fatal flaws in your governance plan. First, technical direction would be set entirely by the gatekeeper (namely you) without any accountability or connection to the business model or users for dotLRN. Second, you advocate a laissez faire approach for the non-technical dimension of dotLRN. This reminds me a lot of the invisible hand of capitalism where somehow free markets are going to take care of everything. We know it won’t. If there is a free for all on the non-technical dimension, then the only one that will benefit potentially is you and OpenForce. OpenForce will have an inside track in ensuring that the technical evolution of dotLRN fits well with OpenForce’s business objectives and strategy. Everyone else will be screwed. Once again purity of motives and allegiance to the open source principles don’t mean anything to me. Where are the checks and balances?

You yourself continue to concede that because of client deadlines OF is not able to do as much as you would like (e.g. developer documentation, release timelines). No one is faulting OF for that. But the point is that we cannot get by in a state of confusion where there is inadequate documentation, unclarity about release dates, inconsistent marketing messages, etc. etc. Everyday that goes by with this state of affairs means loss of business and potential adopters.

You do rightly point out that there also a potential of too much power in the Executive Board and also MIT. This is a legitimate concern and we are taking steps to ensure that there are sufficient checks and balances there as well. We are trying to build a formal organization called the dotLRN consortium and MIT will be transfer authority over to that as soon as we can. Since Univ.ofHeidelberg is now fully on board and contributing, we will be marketing dotLRN as a joint initiative of MIT and Univ.ofHeidelberg. Carl will serve as a co-chair on the EB. This has the double advantage of leveraging the prestige of both institutions and ensuring that there is a counter-balance to MIT/Sloan on the EB. I will be meeting with Berklee next week. I know they also wish to participate and contribute in a strong way. I think TAB is now on a sound footing. Lars, John, Dan, and Don are recognized leaders and contributors in the OpenACS community. OpenForce’s participation would give it even more strength. Michael is also making headway in getting a solid composition for UAB.

Finally, you keep asserting that Joe Developer has no motivation now to contribute. Instead of saying this a priori, can you please give an example of an OpenACS developer who feels this way? More precisely, what about the governance plan is inhibiting contributions? Our dilemma at the moment is quite the opposite. Because we lack strong coordination we are not able to take full advantage of all work that is being done around dotLRN by Sloan, Berklee ,Vienna, etc. On the contrary I see great momentum around dotLRN and interest because people are beginning to feel that there will be strong backing and encouragement from MIT and Heidelberg. I do want to say also that it’s an important element of the governance plan and the business model of dotLRN that we cannot count on or depend upon voluntary contributions. Voluntary contributions are nice and we will take it always, but dotLRN will not evolve unless we continue to have strong funding.

Once again I hope that you will serve as dotLRN kernel gatekeeper and that someone from OF will serve on TAB. If not, we will begin working on the transition next week.

Many thanks,