Ethical Issues in Virtual Communities Of INNovation


Peter Gloor, Carey Heckman, Fillia Makedon


Communities of INNovation (COINNs) – a New Organizational Form

Communities Of INNovation (COINNs) have gained prominence in recent years as a new kind of knowledge-centric organizational form. COINNs are self-organizing groups of highly motivated individuals working together towards a common goal not because of orders from their superiors, but because the members of a COINN share the same goal and are convinced of their common cause. This paper analyzes the inner workings of COINNs, and the ethical and social underpinnings of their success. The lessons learned apply not only to the Internet, the Web, Linux, and other Open Source software projects, but have also been utilized successfully at companies such as Intel (Chesbrough 2003), IBM (Hamel 2001), Union Bank of Switzerland and organizations such as the United Nations (Gloor & Uhlmann, 1999, Gloor 2000).

COINNs demonstrate how new technologies require new applications of ethical thinking and how new applications of ethical thinking in turn can be better implemented by new technologies.

A Community Of INNovation or COINN is a group of self-motivated people with a collective innovative vision, enabled by the web to cooperate in achieving a common goal by sharing ideas, information and work.

People in COINN work together as a virtual team, to realize a shared goal and make their shared vision come true. COINNs have been active well before the advent of the Internet. But by providing instantaneous global accessibility, the Internet has given them an immense boost in productivity. The Internet itself, the World Wide Web, and Linux are examples of innovations driven by COINNs.

This paper first analyzes the inner workings of COINs. It then explores the requirements for an ethical code governing its use as a result of the inner workings of COINNs and proposes the principles for an ethical code for COINNs.

Inner Workings of COINNs

COINNs support an organizational form with five important characteristics: dispersed membership, interdependent membership, no simple chain of command, a work product commons, and dependence on trust. Each of these characteristics creates requirements for an ethical code.

Dispersed Membership: Communication technologies enable COINNs with members located over a wide geographical area, often throughout the world. This dispersion increases the difficulty of maintaining productive relationships. The COINN membership must share a larger vision that focuses the members on working together rather than who wins and who loses. Each member must feel a sense of ownership in the COINN’s undertaking and a conviction that the COINN operates legitimately. Norms must be developed among the members because its members are likely to bring diverse norms when first joining the COINN.

No Simple Chain of Command: COINN technology also enables communications from any member to any other member, undermining a simple chair of command. Violations of the COINN’s norms and the negative consequences of those violations have to be obvious to each member so that cheating does not go undetected or appear harmless. Each member must feel able to express concerns about the COINN or its conduct. Conflicts have to be resolved without a dominating authoritarian force.

Work Contributed to a Commons: Essential to a COINN is creation of a work product commons. Members share work product freely. Members donate work product to this commons. Members build work product based on what is in this commons. The more work product accumulates in the COINN commons, the more costly it will be for a member to abandon their membership, and thus the greater each member’s motivation to comply with the COINN’s norms and resolve conflicts amicably.

Dependence on Trust: (Fukyama 1996) defines trust as “the expectation that arises within a community of regular, honest, and cooperative behavior, based on commonly shared norms, on the part of other members of that community.” The other term that Fukyama uses in the same context is “spontaneous sociability,” which is the ability to form new associations and to cooperate within the terms of reference they establish. If people who work together trust one another because they are all operating according to a common set of ethical norms, their spontaneous sociability will be much higher. COINNs can operate efficiently only if there is mutual trust. Trust can only be maintained if there is a mutually agreed on code of ethics.

Trust can be built even if a global team cannot get together physically. If all parties involved deliver obviously high quality work, trust is built without meetings. But this process takes far more time than an initial face-to-face meeting, as team members have to let their work literally speak for themselves. Also, if the team members come from different cultures it can be hard to define a common language. For example, in the software industry, programmers from India, China, or the Philippines work together with project leaders in the US or Western Europe (Pyysiãinen, Paasivaara & Lassenius, 2003). In order to prevail over initial obstacles and to overcome prejudices, chat can be useful, as it allows asking questions and getting immediate feedback. However, there can be major roadblocks to trust building such as if both sides are not given enough information about the project, the tasks to be done, how the work and responsibilities are divided between sites, and what kind of quality is expected. Under those circumstances, lack of communication will lead to mistrust.

In homogeneous groups such as software developers, the recognition of familiar characteristics in each other’s work will lead them to form a collaborative bond based on skills and similarity of goals (Meyerson, Weick & Kramer, 1996). This works well for example for the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) working groups and the group of programmers developing Linux. But even here, meeting face to face is a much faster way to establish trust.

Initially, new members of a COINN will have a predetermined trust level based on familiarity, reputation, and quality of available information, external recognition, and immediate rewards available to them. Once new members have joined a COINN, they will develop and grow their level of trust based on integrity and competence of the other COINN members they interact with, the quality of information access and communication flow, the intensity of the community building process, and the external perception und support of the COINN.

Principles for an Ethical Code for a COINN

An ethical code sets down the informal rules and principles, which should be followed by all members of a group. The ethical code of a COINN is the main “glue” which holds it together. Rewards in a COINN are given mostly in the form of peer recognition, punishment by withholding recognition or exclusion for really bad offenders. The behavioral code of conduct in online communities can be traced back on the Golden Rule: “only do to others what you would like others do to you.”

Respect your elders: While COINNs have an egalitarian culture, the leaders or gurus of a COINN define the future direction it will be taking. Elders are respected not because of their hierarchical position, but because of their vision. Frequently they are also among the most experienced subject matter experts of a community.

Be courteous with your fellow members: Members of a COINN are expected to treat each other with mutual respect. For example, “flaming” other COINN members in public by sending negative comments to a mailing list is a serious breach of etiquette. Rather, it is expected that negative comments be made in private in a constructive way.

Only say something if you have something to say: It is expected that junior members of a community acquire their knowledge not by asking “naïve” questions in public, but by studying the FAQ (frequently asked questions) lists and by privately consulting recognized knowledge experts. New members are also expected to become knowledgeable as quickly as possible in their community.

Be ready to help your fellow community members: Senior members, knowledge experts, and gurus are usually quite accessible. Recognized knowledge experts are expected to freely share what they know, educating more junior members so that they become knowledgeable themselves.

An ethical code for a COINN can be summarized in four terms: reciprocity, transparency, consistency, and rationality.

Reciprocity, the principle of taking and giving, is at the core of successful innovation communities. Open source software developers contribute their code because they expect their co-developers to do the same.

Transparency means that rules are made explicit, the role and contributions of every COINN member are obvious to the whole community. The skills and the role of every programmer are obvious to all members working on a common open source software project. Violations of the rules are also apparent, and the damage that violations can cause is also well known and understood by every COINN member.

Consistency means that COINN members all behave according to their shared ethical code, and deliver on promises they make to the community. Every open source developer is expected to stick to the programming rules and guidelines that are in effect for his project.

Rationality means that actions within the community are grounded in reason and not in randomness. Innovation communities are driven by learning, logic and a shared vision of working towards “furthering the state of the art.”

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