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Who gets the RFP for Innovation? Musings on Openness and “the Cloud”



Our campus is looking at potential alternatives to a campus-wide system (for the purposes of this piece, it’s irrelevant which one), and, in the way of all post-modern organizations, is developing an RFP (Request for Proposal).

As I say, this is a time-honored tradition; you want a new service, or the replacement of an existing one, you “buy” one, and in organizational parlance, that means a “purchase process” consisting of:  RFI (Request for Information), followed by an RFP, then a review of received proposals,  followed by a purchase, followed by the culminating FAIUIBA (Forget About It Until It Breaks Again; and yes, I did just make up that acronym, but anyone who works with organizational IT knows I’m not describing a mythical creature!) at which time the cycle begins again.

However, gentle readers, I am not stretching a point or telling you anything you don’t already know when I stress that the phrase “time-honored tradition” is nowadays more of a shibboleth than laudatory; and one would think this would be especially true in the fast-moving world of Information Technology.  Yet it is perhaps here, more than any other service area, where the tradition dies hardest.

Open is here to stay

The great “open” movements that are already transforming education, as well as society at large, are little recognized when it comes to the “purchase process” described above.  (Keeping in mind, of course, that all the “open” movements are co-mingled with that giant conceptual cloud:  “cloud computing,” wherein you get your tech services and software from non-campus resources).  Let’s take one small component of the “open” environment:  Open Source Software.  If you are reading this post on the Web, it was created on server-side Open Source Software (in this case, Drupal; which means the software was developed by no single individual or company, but by a universe of like-minded developers; and that it cost us Zero Dollars to test, “buy,” download, and install).  Chance are about 50-50 you are reading this post on an Open Source Web client (Firefox is the most widespread one).  You are then free to download this text into an Open Source desktop application (such as Open Office’s Writer)

So, I can create, read, download, and re-format everything for/from a Web page, all without any money changing hands, all dependent on no corporation, but rather a group of like-minded developers whose only inherent interest is to make a better product.  Sweet, huh? 

Where’s the Rub, bub?

So, when it comes to selecting a new University service (e.g., Course Management System, Content Management System, Integrated Library System, email system, etc.) why wouldn’t your search begin with Open Source Software?

Well, there are a number of reasons, but today I’ll concentrate on one:  And that is, in most instances, Open Source has neither the same place at the table, nor the same advocacy, as does commercial software.  And the reason is simple:  By its very nature, Open Source is dependent on a spirit of innovation, and a strong user base; the developer’s goal is to share their work.  Commercial software is dependent upon a sales team, who innundate us all with mail (electronic and paper), phone calls, advertising, etc; their goal is for you to buy their product, because once you do, you won’t switch, at least not for a long time.  (Don’t forget FAIUIBA!)

Becoming the voice of the Open

So, how do we get Open Source (as well as its kindred movements, Open Access, Open Educational Resources) its proper place at the table?  Only by calling our institutions to task, namely:  If we claim we want to nurture innovation, “transformation,” and places where experimentation and education go hand-in-hand, then we have no choice:  Alternatives beyond those presented by salespeople must be explored, encouraged, and given room to grow. 

And if you’ve read this far, one last suggestion:  If you find yourself on an academic committee that is formulating, or evaluating, an RFP, do something radical:  Remind your colleagues that the “P” in RFP stands for “Proposal” instead of “Purchase.”  If you can get that radical idea across, try to at least broach the idea that “free” is not all bad, and supporting those who are in favor of innovation and sharing is not terrible, either.

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