I next asked Whitehurst “How does the open source culture affect Red Hat internally as a corporation?” Specifically, I wanted to know how have “the tenets of open source” affected management processes? This was, in many respects, the most interesting part of my conversation with him.
“The traditional hierarchical org structure was developed to control, and steward fixed assets,” Whitehurst told me. The traditional hierarchies do not tend to innovate. “When information is your primary product, hierarchy isn’t the best way to drive.”
To illustrate how the open source culture influences everything at Red Hat, Whitehurst told me a story about an early experience as the company’s CEO. When he started, the company had — to his mind — a rather weak mission statement. Coming from a traditional management background, Whitehurst’s first reaction was to do what CEOs all around the world do: gather the executive team, have an off-site retreat with a paid facilitator, and develop a new mission statement. This new statement would then be broadcast to the employees.
“Hold on, sparky,” was effectively what his executive team told him. “You need internal buy-in,” he was told. An internal collaboration site was established — mailing list, wiki, blog — to discuss the mission statement with staffers who were passionate about that issue. Once the infrastructure was put in place, the discussion was entirely self-organized, and about 15 to 20 people really dug in. “Iterate, iterate, iterate” is how Whitehurst described the process.
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