Learning how to communicate

Pity poor Dr. Ari Jaaksi from Nokia. He gave a talk at the Handsets World conference in Berlin on Tuesday, where according to ZDnet, he lectured Open Source Developers that they needed to learn why DRM and other closed technologies were necessary, because of business issues such as subsidized (device) business models. I suspect he wasn’t prepared for the reaction, which took the form of a major fuss on Slashdot, as well as some declarations from a few people on the maemo-users mailing lists that they would never buy another Nokia device. Dr Jaaski then posted today on his blog an entry entitled, “Some learning to do?”, where he stated that while Nokia needs to learn how the open source world works (not just licenses and legal issues, but also the spirit), that the open source world also needed to learn as well — about WHY things are the way they are. He ended the post with “I’m not a teacher, I’m a learner” — which is fair enough.

I actually think that Dr. Jaaksi is right; we all should be interested in learning, and having talked with a number of Nokia employees, I can testify that their hearts are very much in the right place, and there are some strong reasons regarding the demands of carriers, the subsidized business model of handsets in the US, the attitudes of suppliers for components in mobile devices, that very much tie their hands — as well the hands of every other handset company out there. Progress in this space will come slowly, and but I believe there is hope that in the long run things will get better.

However, at the same time, I would suggest to Dr. Jaaksi that it’s also important how to communicate with the open source community — or with any community that holds views sometimes with great passion. Many people do not react well to being told that they need to learn something — even if it is true that they do. Admitting that they need to learn is for some people tantamount to admitting ignorance, or even worse admitting stupidity, and so they are loath to do this. Telling them this just makes them defensive and angry.

My suggestion for how get people to learn without making them defensive is to use a modified Socratic method. It works especially well with the Open Source crowd, because many of them are engineers, and engineers are by nature problem solvers. So if you give them a problem to solve, they will go to work trying to find potential solutions, and thus start thinking and learning about the problem from a different point of view. Hence, a better approach is to give them a series of business constraints (time to market, the demands of carriers, the fact that most end users prefer to buy subsidized phones with 1-2 year lock-in contracts, the intransigence of suppliers, why a single company can’t afford to create their own chipsets from scratch and have to rely on companies like Broadcom, etc.) and then tell them — we’d love to delight our customers in any way we can, and clearly you are very passionate about DRM, open device drivers, and other OSS issues. We however have to create successful products and sell them at a price such that we don’t go out of business — can you help us work through all of these constraints? Let’s work together so we can make an open source mobile platform that meets the spirit as well as the legal requirements of the open source world!

Dr. Jaaksi and his team are struggling with a hard problem, and I am very sympathetic to their issues. And, they have to be commended for investing as much time and effort on the Maemo platform, as well as other Linux and Open Source platforms as they have to date. The strength of the Open Source community is that we work together to solve our mutual problems, while celebrating and giving permission to people to “scratch their own itches”. In order to do that, we need to learn how to better communicate with each other, and that is something that goes in both directions.

When I was at MIT as an undergraduate, far too many years ago than I care to admit, I took economics classes and Sloan School of Management classes (even though they were not necessary for a Computer Science degree) for that very reason. I encourage open source advocates to learn how to walk a mile or two in business people’s shoes, since if you want to influence them them to change in the ways that you desire, you need to know where they are coming from — just shouting and throwing rotten tomatoes generally won’t get you very far. On the flip side, people who are on the corporate side of the divide also need to understand that certain ways of engaging the community can be more productive than others. At the end of the day, hopefully we can all agree with Dr. Jaaksi that everyone will benefit if we all commit to learning from each other.

Update: I’ve fixed Dr. Jaaksi’s name so it is spelled correctly; my apologies for the error.