Governing open source communities through boundary decisions

Al Bulushi, Wisal Abbas Jaffer (2018) Governing open source communities through boundary decisions. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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Governing open source software (OSS) communities is defined in the relevant literature as the formal and informal means to control and coordinate the collective efforts towards common objectives (Markus, 2007). OSS communities are not based on a fixed structure. Instead, the structure emerges through collaboration. Participants, technical artefacts, ideas, resources, and interactions are fluid (Faraj et al., 2011) in the sense that they are reconfigured over time, depending on the context of the community. This has raised governance challenges in terms of determining “how open is open enough” (West, 2003). Governing a fluid complex technically-mediated ecosystem, such as OSS communities, requires determining whether to keep the boundaries open to all, which may risk the quality of the deliverables, or restricting the contributions to an elite population, which restrains collaboration (Ferraro and O'Mahony, 2012).

In this thesis, I argue that OSS governance is a boundary decision to determine and legitimise the practices that best govern the collective effort in a particular context (Ferraro and O'Mahony, 2012). The current literature focused on two types of boundaries; the external boundary that separates OSS communities from the commercial world; and the role-based boundary that identifies the roles and responsibilities of the individuals (Chen and O’Mahony, 2009). The former boundary has been extensively discussed in the literature by focusing on how firms reap the benefits of OSS products without exploiting the collective effort. The latter boundary focuses on individuals as the main actors of the community.

The current views on OSS governance have two main limitations. First, current accounts focus on creating a governance structure that facilitates the collaboration among dispersed individuals, neglecting the issues of fluidity and dynamicity. As a result, scholars continue to build their studies on taken-for-granted assumptions overlooking the transformations that have occurred to the overall settings of the OSS community. One of the overlooked areas is the emergence of vertical (i.e. domain-specific) OSS communities, which is the main interest of this thesis.

Second, technology, in the context of OSS, is either considered as an end product or a medium of governance. Current studies failed to address the materiality of technology, where materiality refers to the ways in which the properties of technology are arranged and rearranged in relation to each other to accomplish governance practices in a particular context. The materiality of technology entails different possibilities for governance practices, which is not sufficiently addressed in the literature. Therefore, I argue and demonstrate that any attempt to explain OSS governance without addressing materiality is considered incomplete.

In this thesis, I demonstrate that OSS communities are governed through boundary decisions, where decisions refer to delineating the boundaries of the community. This is achieved by identifying the actors, actions, and resources required to control and coordinate the collaborative effort in a particular context. Boundary decisions entail remaining sensitive to the changes that occur to the context and change the boundaries accordingly.

I adopt grounded theory approach to conduct a case study on Kuali; a vertical OSS community that develops ERP system for the higher education sector. The research findings contribute to the OSS governance literature by developing a theoretical foundation that explains OSS governance as a boundary decision. The emergent theory explains OSS governance in terms of context, control, resources, and materiality. I illustrate through empirical evidence how these constructs interact with each other to govern the collective effort. The thesis contributes to the OSS literature by bringing to the fore the dynamicity and materiality of OSS governance. The thesis also has implications in the area of boundary management. OSS communities represent a non-traditional organisational settings, and thus provides novel theoretical insights with regards to boundary management.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Kuk, George
Curchod, Corentin G.
Keywords: open source software, governance, boundary decision, fluidity
Subjects: Q Science > QA Mathematics > QA 75 Electronic computers. Computer science
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Social Sciences, Law and Education > Nottingham University Business School
Item ID: 52074
Depositing User: Al Bulushi, Wisal
Date Deposited: 10 Aug 2018 12:37
Last Modified: 07 May 2020 17:48

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