How Open Source Leaders Emerge

In open-source projects such as the online encyclopedia Wikipedia or the operating system Linux, large groups of geographically distributed people, with little or no affiliation with one another, produce successful results even with no formal leadership in place.
How Open Source Leaders Emerge

That begs the question: What makes open source work?

That’s the subject of a forthcoming study by Samer Faraj of McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management in Montreal, Canada; Sri Kudaravalli of HEC Paris in France; and Molly Wasko of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The researchers examined 6,709 messages from 976 individuals in a computer programming community to discover how de facto leaders emerge in open-source groups. They analyzed the messages for behaviors related to sociability, such as expressing thanks and sharing personal stories, as well as those related to leadership, such as contributing ideas and answering questions. They noted the types of behaviors that were associated most closely with those perceived as community leaders.

They found that leaders in these groups were more likely to contribute knowledge than engage in social behaviors. The distinction is of interest because in traditional organizations, social capital and relationships have been shown to be an important factor in leadership development. The researchers also found that in their study’s large sample size—which included close to 1,000 individuals—only 42 were perceived by others as leaders.

The researchers point out that the rules of leadership might be different in less technically driven communities. They also cannot confirm whether leaders emerged because they already possessed leadership qualities or whether they developed leadership qualities because they first engaged in social behaviors. But they note that this study is one of the first to provide a glimpse into how leaders develop in relatively “leaderless” environments, an important topic for companies that want to experiment with online crowdsourcing to drive innovation.

“Leading Collaboration in Online Communities” is forthcoming in MIS Quarterly.