Role of Participation Architecture in Growing Sponsored Open Source Communities

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Article: The Role of Participation Architecture in Growing Sponsored Open Source Communities. By Joel West (San Jose State University College of Business) and Siobhán O’Mahony (UC Davis Graduate School of Management) February 6, 2008 preprint version of Industry and Innovation, Special Issue on “Managing Open Innovation Through Online Communities”



Special issue: Online Communities and Open Innovation: Governance and Symbolic Value Creation.


Special issue of the journal Industry & Innovation, (Volume 15 Issue 2 2008)

Editor's Summary

"The West and O’Mahony paper, “The Role of Participation Architecture in Growing Sponsored Open Source Communities”, offers an answer to the previous implicit question about governance structures and the contradictions of a series of open source communities classified according to the typologies of firms’ participation in these communities. Based on a qualitative study the paper shows that firm-sponsored online communities or open source online communities initiated by a firm, differ from organically grown open source communities. To demonstrate the differences between these two archetypical forms of open source online communities West and O’Mahony develop the concept of “participation architecture”. The concept is created by the joining together of three important design dimensions for the coordination of tasks and communication in an online community: management of intellectual property rights, development approach and model of community governance. The study makes it explicit that various participation architectures exist in the two kinds of open source communities.

The authors find that corporate sponsorship in open source communities influences the design and evolution of them and that this affects:

(1) the degree of transparency of community participants to follow the community’s collective process of development; and

(2) accessibility for participants, to contribute to code development.

Despite oftentimes trying to imitate the organization and design of organic open source communities, firm-sponsored communities face the classic tension between control and growth. This is because firms that are sponsoring an open source community struggle to maintain an open structure supportive of growth in the community in parallel with managing and maintaining control over the direction of and the activities taking place in the open source online community. For example, a firm sponsoring a community may define and potentially limit the opportunity structure for others to enter the community, as well as deciding who has access to the code/core of the community. The final contribution of this paper to the debate invoked in this Special Issue demonstrates that it is rarely the technical architecture and set-up of online communities that single-handedly determines participation frequency and structure. To better understand the differences in the character and quality of participation in different types of online communities, and thus be better informed about how innovation through these communities is managed and incentivized, we need to note that the organizational structure hinges upon the community sponsor’s decisions regarding the design of governance mechanisms.”


“ Most research on open source software communities has focused on those that are community founded. More recently, firms have founded their own open source communities.

How do sponsored open source communities differ from their autonomous counterparts? With comparative examination of 12 open source projects initiated by corporate sponsors, we identify three design parameters that together help form a participation architecture – the opportunity structure extended to potential external contributors. In exploring sponsors’ community design decisions, we found that sponsored open source projects were more likely to offer transparency than they were accessibility and that this had implications for their communities’ growth. We contribute theoretical constructs that offer a common basis of comparison for the future study of open source projects and illustrate how the tension between control and growth affects open source community design and creation.” (

Author’s Introduction:

“Little is known about how corporate sponsorship affects how open source communities are designed and evolve.

Too often the existence of technical communities is taken as a given, and the factors influencing their design unexplored (Hargrave and Van de Van, 2006). If communities are an important vehicle for mediating firm interactions (Rosenkopf et al, 2001) and potentially for innovation outcomes (von Hippel, 2005; Jepperson and Frederiksen, 2006), then understanding such collaborations is crucial to any understanding of that roles that communities play in innovation.

This research examines 12 sponsored open source communities, and contrasts them with prior research on autonomous communities. From this comparative analysis, we identified three design dimensions that corporate sponsors consider when designing open source communities:

1) intellectual property rights,

2) development approach, and

2) model of community governance.

We found that design decisions in these three areas created a specific participation architecture: i.e. the socio-technical framework that extends participation opportunities to external parties and integrates their contributions. Much as architecture guides people in physical space, a participation architecture guides interactions and exchange in a community through the social, legal, and technical capabilities offered to community members.

While prior research has shown that a project’s technical architecture can affect community participation (Baldwin and Clark, 2006; MacCormack, Rusnak and Baldwin, 2006), there has been less appreciation for how community design choices can also affect participation.

By comparing the participation architectures that resulted from sponsors’ design decisions, we identified two types of openness: transparency and accessibility. While transparency offered potential contributors the ability to follow and understand a community’s production efforts, accessibility determined the degree to which external contributors could influence that production.

In designing a community, sponsors were more likely to offer

transparency than they were to offer accessibility to external community members. We found that sponsors faced a control vs. growth tension. To leverage the ability of communities to contribute to their firm’s bottom line, sponsors sought to maintain control over the community’s strategic direction. However, sponsors soon discovered that by restricting access to community processes, they limited their community’s ability to attract new members and grow.

We contribute to the literature on open source communities, technical communities and firms and community collaboration in three ways.

First, we identify some key distinctions between sponsored communities and autonomous communities that can help further research on firm-community collaboration and innovation.

Second, we develop the construct of participation architecture and show how it is operationalized in a sample of open source communities.

Third, we illustrate the “control-growth” tension that sponsors building communities face when making design decisions.

Our research shows that participation in a community is determined not only by the technical architecture identified by Baldwin and Clark (2006), but also by the organizational structure that results from a sponsor’s community building design decisions.” (


West and O’Mahony:

“We defined and contrasted two different types of open source software communities: those sponsored by corporate organizations and the more traditionally studied autonomous (community managed) communities. Our study had two research questions: how did sponsors design open source software communities in the hopes of attracting external participation, and how did this differ from the design of autonomous based communities?

By studying the design decisions that sponsors made when creating a community, we identified three dimensions that affected participation: 1) the organization of production, 2) governance, and 3) intellectual property. In doing so, we showed that the participation architecture of a technical community is determined not only by its technical architecture, but also by community design decisions made by the community’s leaders. While modularity in the technical architecture remains important to enabling participation by reducing the learning curve or cost of entry (e.g. Baldwin and Clark, 2006), the aspects of community design that we identified are also critical to attracting and enabling participants primarily because they shape the landscape of opportunities extended.

We showed that sponsors’ community design decisions on these three dimensions reflected the inherent tension between two conflicting goals. On the one hand, firms wished to retain control over technologies fundamental to their business success. On the other hand, providing the opportunity structure for others to participate was a prerequisite for gaining the benefits from developing an external community. Thus, when designing a participation architecture, firms mediate between surrendering control and offering opportunities for outside participation that could lead to community contributions and growth.” (

More Information

Related links:

  1. Participation Architecture