Critical Mass? On the Proposed Sakai-Jasig Merger

As a currently serving Sakai Foundation board member, I have been a close participant in the merger efforts between Sakai and Jasig, including participating in the joint working group on the merger with the Jasig board and being “elected” to be a part of the founding board of the new merged foundation, should it come into existence.

I have been supportive of the idea of the merger because I’m always looking for ways education can increase control of its technology destiny and leverage common resources. Because Sakai itself is evolving to be a multiproject organization (with the Sakai CLE and OAE projects), it makes sense to consider evolving our community further to support multiple projects, and multiple approaches to project success. As someone who has participated in the formation and maintenance of a number of nonprofit organizations, I especially welcome the idea that with such an umbrella organization, like-minded projects and communities might not have to form their own independent nonprofit organizations, a necessity that I have seen result in significant duplication of efforts and seems an inefficient use of our scarce resources.

While the somewhat different cultures and technologies of Jasig don’t necessarily make it the ideal first partner for Sakai, I believe we have more in common than we have different. The merger investigation alone has started new collaborations and insights across our communities. With an expanded umbrella, we could shelter new partnerships of different types in the future with other like-minded open educational technology organizations (eg, DuraSpace, Kuali, Opencast, etc). We don’t all have to merge, but we call all work more closely together.

As the merger has moved forward however, I have become less supportive of an immediate merger, only because I have seen it generate sufficient friction within the Sakai community that I believe could be a damaging distraction to other important work. Let’s face it: everybody involved has more in common than we have different and we all have far better things to do to achieve our mostly shared goals than argue amongst ourselves. I hope to to see some more healthy, respectful, open debate in our communities before finalizing my personal viewpoint. I’m disappointed that some of those who seem to think the merger is important—both for and against—have not engaged in more public discourse on the matter.

Some may have taken note that my employer—rSmart—is one of the few organizations to take a public stand on the merger, announcing that as a Sakai Commercial Affiliate, rSmart would vote against the merger in the planned community vote. It may seem odd that my viewpoint does not exactly match rSmart’s.

In all this and in my board and community work in general, I would like to applaud rSmart, CEO Chris Coppola, and the rest of the rSmart team for consistently recognizing and supporting my independent viewpoints and office, rather than attempting to shape my board position and community voice to further rSmart’s or anyone’s interests and/or viewpoints. rSmart’s conduct here is a further demonstration of rSmart’s highly ethical culture, and provides more evidence of the healthy synergy we see in Sakai among commercial and educational organizations that share values and visions.

Whatever the outcomes of the merger, I’m proud to be a member of the Sakai community and to work for an organization that continues to earn my respect.

I welcome any and all comments—public or private.

3 thoughts on “Critical Mass? On the Proposed Sakai-Jasig Merger”

  1. I think Maggie has done a good job of comments on Nate’s points and thus won’t repeat what she said (although I agree and support them).

    I did want to comment on one specific aspect of the Blog post that spoke to why you (Nate) were not as supportive as you had been…the specific comment was:

    “As the merger has moved forward however, I have become less supportive of an immediate merger, only because I have seen it generate sufficient friction within the Sakai community that I believe could be a damaging distraction to other important work.”

    I think (hope) that those who know me know that I work hard to find consensus when working with groups and much prefer collaboration over “friction”. This said, I have certainly come to feel that “friction” and disagreement is a fact of life in our communities and, to a large degree, is part of the open community-based decision making process. All organizations have internal “arguments” when it comes to strategic decisions but in many contexts these are done behind closed doors or only at the senior management level. A core value of community-based decisions (imo) is that these “arguments” are done in much more of a public light…the downside is that everyone gets to see people’s strong emotions about their opinions…but that is also a big benefit.

    Thus, although I would prefer there to always be consensus in our communities I know that is not practical and, to some extent, would not be healthy. The current friction we are seeing I think is the result of where we are in this decision making process and the outcome of a healthy and important debate. I also think it is worthwhile pointing out that we have seen this type of “friction” many times in Sakai’s history whether it was around the merging with OSP or the work over the past few years around OAE. I think in both cases our communities were better off because of the debates that took place around these decisions in the same way we will be better for with this one.

    I don’t want to leave the wrong impression. I have been aware of what I might characterize as unprofessional or immature behavior in some of the discussions that have taken place. Although I think these often flow from the fact that our community has a lot of passionate people in it (a strength) who can become very emotional about these issues (as I sometimes do myself), this type of behavior is not productive and can distract from the decision making process I noted above. I think the cases of these have been very limited and generally not done “in public” but I would agree that it would be best if things remains civil and professional.

    So, yes, we have seen some heated debates around the merger issues and there has been some friction caused by them. Should we delay or slow down the merger planning because of this friction? I, fairly strongly, do not think so as I believe this friction is a natural outcome of our community decision process. I would also suggest that we reflect on where we would be if we backed off decisions, such as OAE, when they caused similar friction.

    I’m glad that you (Nate) took the time to post your thoughts and hope that this dialog and others continue.


  2. Thank you for posting your honest views here, Nate. I agree that rSmart has been a wonderful commercial partner to the Sakai Foundation, as has most of our commercial affiliates. I also appreciate that rSmart allows for the free expression of views from its employees even when they are in disagreement.

    I have been a part of the merger efforts as well, as part of the Sakai Board and as an elected member to the joint founding board. I agree that most of us in the open source and community source software movement have more in common than we have different. I believe all of us have a passion for serving education and for providing options for education to spend less money while still receiving quality software that specifically meets our needs. I also think that, no matter what side our community members are on, that they have good and logical reasons for their opinion and their vote.

    In terms of how the merger is progressing, I would say that it is going through the proper channels and it is getting a healthy debate in both the Jasig and Sakai communities. There are some members who do not see this as something we should take on at this time, and believe it is a distraction. There are those, in both the Jasig and Sakai communities, who question the financial incentives/disincentives for joining together. There are many others (I believe this is the majority of the membership) who believe the time is ripe to create this type of consolidated organization and open the door for others to join us in the future. It is hard work to bring communities together. It is even harder work to communicate the vision and get buy-in for the change.

    In terms of timing, something I’ve learned from my long time in Academia and in the software industry is that there is never a perfect time for change. There is never a perfect time to take on additional work. And, if we wait for the perfect time, we will find that we never move forward.

    Is this a distraction to our work? I don’t know that I would characterize it as a distraction. I can say that over the past year it has taken enormous amounts of volunteer time from the people involved in that work. Has it distracted us to the point that we are failing to provide sufficient support and oversight to our two products–Sakai CLE and Sakai OAE? I don’t think so. I believe that those who make this claim are tying our work around fiscal management, cutting costs, and upping collections to our work on the merger. This is not the case. Just as colleges and universities have faced budget constraints over the past three years during this recession, so has the Sakai Foundation. That required us to cut costs and manage budgets more carefully. Fortunately, our work with Jasig has actually brought us new members and new revenues from those who see a partnership and cross-platform work in a very positive light.

    For myself, I have spent countless hours talking to Sakai members both for and against the merger. I have spent additional hours reviewing and questioning the financials of both Jasig and Sakai and evaluating what our joint organization would gain or lose. I have spent a few hours talking to leaders in other open source organizations and getting an appreciation for where we have additional synergies. I believe our work is justified and I truly thank all of those who have taken the time to participate and to carefully craft and review all of the documentation.

    In the end, I’ve come to the conclusion that we WILL be a stronger organization together than we are separately. I believe this will also make us more attractive for new members and for added international participation. I believe, as a stronger organization, we will attract other open source projects which can gain economies of scale by affiliating with us and/or merging with us.

    Will it be easy? No. Will it take additional time and effort? Yes. Is this the best time to do this? I don’t know, but why not? Things are not going to get easier for Sakai. Things are not going to slow down in the next few years and provide a period of time with nothing else to do. The beauty of community source development is that we give our members a choice. Our members are our customers and they get to vote on how we proceed — unlike customers of proprietary systems who have no choice in the direction of their software.

    If our membership votes Yes, we will move forward with the merger and I believe be a stronger organization for it. If our membership votes No, then I believe the work was still worthwhile. We have forged a deeper relationship with Jasig that will serve us well in the future. We have also done the work to established a foundation upon which to explore common synergies between Sakai and many other open source projects. Whether we ever merge with anyone or not, I think that foundation is critical to our strategic planning moving forward.

    I believe the effort has been worth it. I believe the merger of our organizations is right and right for this time. I believe that the addition of other organizations is the future is not only a possibility, but a probability. I believe we will all win, and in the end Education will win. I am willing to make that happen and will work hard to make it a success.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments Maggie. I encourage you to post them more widely to community lists, as I think they are worthy of a far greater audience than my blog attracts.


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