Open Source Consortia: Measure twice, cut once

The Open Forum Europe (TOF-E) is a group of European suppliers told to trial a franchisee approach. Googling around I found the following (old) news about the TOFe EC funded project:

The Open Forum-Europe (TOF-E) raises awareness of open source software and the benefits it can bring to European public and private sectors. TOF-E will accomplish this goal by establishing Internet portals that will help users select software based upon their current and future needs.

The declared aim of the Open Forum Europe project is:

The aim of The OpenForum Europe (TOF-e) project is to put certainty and commercial clarity into the whole Open Source process. It will assist SMEs, Enterprises and the Public Sector in the pragmatic adoption and support of OSS by intermediating between business users and the OSS developers, integrators and support community across Europe.
TOF-e represents the specific market validation phase of this eTEN project to rollout TOF-e across Europe and consists of 3 local portals in Denmark, Ireland and the UK.

I must admit the portal doesn’t help much, it contains a link to website, a practical course in StarOffice 8 that you can buy there 38.50€ and, last but not least, a “useful tool“:

Certified Openâ„¢ is designed to help measure and encourage competition through the provision of a framework for evaluating technical and commercial lock-in where that may reduce the ability of suppliers to compete in the provision of software, hardware and services.

Unfortunately the site doesn’t offer any further information about the “useful tool”, so far it looks like if we can’t get much out of the portal. The EC-funded projects, started in September 2005 is supposed to close soon (February 2007) and I am afraid we have no real chance to see the TOF-E promise realized:

In Europe there is perceived to be substantial opportunity to create new ICT opportunity for SMEs, and for the creation of a new ICT market, particularly in new Member States. However, independent research, including that undertaken by OpenForum Europe has observed that a number of inhibitors to success remain. Key amongst these is current lack of a comprehensive, yet locally available, access to advice and guidance; perceived lack of skills both within the user and with support partners.
TOF-e is being launched as a commercial electronic intermediary focussed on the needs of government and business and aimed at the Director, Senior Management, Business Users and their Business Advisors (Accountants, Administrators, Legal and Financial Advisors, Procurement Officers, Banks and SME business advisors) based in a particular community. SME potential users and suppliers will be particular beneficiaries.

Getting back to the title, if you are not running an (externally) public funded project, I agree with Gianugo advising on using consortia to do actual business:

[..] my experience shows there’s nothing harder than have individuals with a strong personality such as entrepreneurs sit around a table and agree on a detailed common roadmap. Democracy is definitely a poor governance model when it comes to business: a strong company, with proper hierarchies and delegation structures in place, is much more effective when it comes to getting to the market.

It just doesn’t work, no matter how I love my fellow Orixians. Consortia are great for networking, getting to know each other better, share experiences and market approaches, understand joint business opportunities and work on actual cross-company business: that’s great stuff, but don’t try to push the boundary, as when it comes to concrete business it’s just too hard to cope with the sheer amount of management that kicks in. It’s a full time job.

Yes, it’s a full time job, in two years I spent more than 600 hours on consortium’s activities when I was the president of the CIRS Italian consortium, and I must admit it’s true that SMEs tend to have short-term perspectives. Members usually can’t afford medium to long term investments and look for quick results, making difficult if not impossible sharing a common strategic approach.