Open-source is sexy

The Business Section of Saturday’s New York Times had good news for this do-gooder: Open-source is sexy!

The column “Talking Business” by Joe Nocera has the title, “The Paradoxes Of Businesses As Do-Gooders” and says in part, with my emphasis added in bold:

The annual Business for Social Responsibility conference came to New York this week, and it only seemed as though half of corporate America ground to a halt to attend. Starbucks was there, of course, in force, but companies like Chevron, J. C. Penney, Pfizer, McDonald’s, Ford Motor and Exxon Mobil all had representatives as well, according to the program. You’d be surprised at the range of companies that are embracing the corporate responsibility mantle. Certainly, I was.

Corporate Social Responsibility, as the movement is called by its adherents, has gone mainstream. The Grand Hyatt Hotel in Midtown Manhattan was teeming with some 1,200 corporate practitioners, experts, headhunters, academics and consultants. (Business for Social Responsibility, which runs the conference, is one of the leading consultants.) “It’s become a sexy field, and lots of people want to get into it,” said someone at my luncheon table on Wednesday, the first day of the conference. That was easy enough to see.

You could walk through the exhibition area and pick up fat reports — fatter in some cases than the annual report —from General Electric or Coca-Cola listing all the things they are doing to make the world a better place: saving the environment, building projects in the third world, ensuring that the labor they employ in developing countries work in decent conditions and get a fair wage.
And you could listen to people say over and over that being socially responsible just made good business sense, and had become critical to the way their companies did business.

And you could wonder about that.

Mr. Nocera goes on to wonder about what to him seems a new phenomenon, and includes some quotes to back up his thesis, later writing:

what initially spurred the modern corporate social responsibility movement was the rise of nonprofit activist groups, which pushed and prodded — and boycotted — companies to force them toward, say, treating workers better in developing countries.

But as to whether it really is “core” to their business, that struck me as another question entirely.“It always makes sense for people to act more responsibly,” said Paul Hawken, the co-founder of Smith & Hawken and a well-known corporate critic and environmentalist. “But what are they responding to? They are responding to stakeholder pressure. To the zeitgeist. To their own internal cultures, as employees retire and younger people take their place. But,” he added, “corporate social responsibility is a very safe place to talk about these things. By safe, I mean it doesn’t challenge the business model.”

Mr. Nocera’s column mentions the following corporations: Chevron, J. C. Penney, Pfizer, McDonald’s, Ford Motor, Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Coca Cola, Time Warner, Shell, Staples, and Novartis. Mention is also made of Christian Aid, a British-based aid group, whose spokesperson said “There is a whole lot of lip service.

The column concludes with:

If the movement takes that next step — if it really does become about the core business model — it won’t be because corporations have led the way. It will be because the rest of us have.

The earliest date mentioned in the column is the 1950’s, about which Mr. Nocera says:

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the major American companies tended to underwrite many of the large, important endeavors in their headquarters cities: the opera, the big charities, the museums, and so on. These were clearly peripheral to what the company did, but nobody seemed to mind. Nor did they care that the money came out of the shareholders’ pockets.

Mr. Nocera, I have news for you. It ain’t so, Joe. I can even give you one response you can use when you are asked, “Say it ain’t so, Joe?” [1]

Corporation: IBM. When: about 1914, more than three decades before the 1950’s. Corporate responsibility has been part of IBM’s core business model for almost a century.

Please take a look at a web page you can find at IBM’s web site, in the section “About IBM” -> “Our Company” -> “Corporate Responsibility” -> “Relationships”, Relationships. It begins by saying

IBM’s commitment to communities began with the founding of the company by Thomas J. Watson, Sr., in 1914. His vision for the corporation explicitly staked IBM’s reputation not only on technical leadership, but also on community leadership. He knew that the future of IBM was inextricably linked to the communities in which it did business; no company could be successful if it was part of an unsuccessful community.

IBM’s relationships with community and nongovernmental organizations are long-term partnerships that grow out of a foundational belief in two-way dialogue and mutual learning. Our worldwide Corporate Community Relations organization, with employees in more than 20 countries around the world, manages our global philanthropic programs and serves as the primary point of contact with community and nongovernmental organizations. This includes, in the area of corporate citizenship, IBM’s leadership position in founding the Global Leadership Network for Corporate Citizenship, as well as our memberships at the Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College, Business for Social Responsibility, the Conference Board, CSR Europe, the European Academy of Business in Society, and the Center to Encourage Corporate Philanthropy, among others.

IBM’s Corporate Community Relations (CCR) team, has a simple mission that can be expressed in a simple phrase, “IBM Gives.” You can learn more about CCR at

Over the last ten years, IBM has been one of the largest corporate contributors of cash, equipment, and people to nonprofit organizations and educational institutions across the U.S. and around the world. In all our efforts, we help people use information technology to improve the quality of life for themselves and others.

IBM’s contributions target a few key areas and leverage our expertise in technology. In our efforts, we strive to underscore the role of technology as a tool to address societal issues; demonstrate IBM’s reputation as a solutions provider; and focus IBM’s philanthropic programs to enhance relationships with customers and employees. This policy of strategic investments has benefited communities by bringing IBM experts from all over the world to address their concerns, and has engaged our employees more fully in the important mission of corporate citizenship.

I say all this not to beat IBM’s drums, but to point out that this blog exists as part of my volunteer efforts as an IBMer to find ways to encourage IBM employees — and others — who have open-source skills to volunteers their time to use those skills to make the world a better place. [2] See for example, OpenSourceVolunteers.

Which means that if I’m working as an IBM volunteer, trying to use open-source help make the world a better place, then I am using open-source in part to help IBM become a more socially responsible corporation. I’m doing something that is now even considered “sexy,” basing that work on open-source. To me this means open-source is sexy, too.

As I’ve said before, a sign that you are doing open-source well is that you are having fun. If you are not having fun, then something is wrong and you should fix it.

Well, I can attest I had a lot of fun relaying the news that open-source is sexy, so things are humming along.

I’m going to have even more fun when I relay the news to my colleagues on IBM’s CCR Team that their mission is not only important, but is sexy to boot.

Then again, perhaps this is not news after all. I spoke a few years back with a professor who was teaching a computer course back in the late 1990’s. One day, some of his students had said they were going to an “install-fest” in the dorm later that evening. Knowing the undergraduate mind well, he decided not to ask what they were installing, or who was doing the installing, or even if the installing was being done to someone. He learned later that some students were helping to install Linux on other students’ laptops.


1. See for example, Say It Ain’t So, Joe!: The True Story of Shoeless Joe Jackson

2. I started this blog as part of my volunteer efforts. I decided I would take the project public and would begin by blogging intensely for a while so I could both improve my writing skills and learn write more rapidly. I hope I’ve made some progress in both. One thing I never expected is that I would write successive blog posts that, first, explained the consequences of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958, and, second, was about the sexiness of open-source.

In any event I am having fun writing these posts — I hope you have some fun when you read them.

One Trackback

  1. […] No. I’m not claiming to be a spy. I’m not even claiming to be super-sexy, even though I work in open-source and a recent NY Times column opined that open-source is sexy, as I reported in Open-source is sexy. […]

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