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The link between HL7 and Open Source Software

Publication date: Jan 06, 2007

Peer production (also known as peer collaboration) is a popular topic of discussion nowadays - it is one of the cornerstones of the Web 2.0 phenomenon. The characteristics and governance models of the Linux, Wikipedia, Flickr and Slashdot communities (just to name a few) have been extensively studied, and parallels have been observed. So how does HL7 relate to peer production?

When HL7 did a review of its organizational structures in 2005/2006, the fact that it shares a lot of characteristics with open source projects like Linux wasn't seized upon. That's a shame, because in terms of process, volunteer motivation, and governance there are things which can be learned by examining open source projects. The FLOSS-scene (Free/Libre Open Source Software) has been studied extensively [1,2]. Peer production in general has been studied as well [3,4,5,6].

The HL7 organization is a non profit, all volunteer organization that develops standards for the exchange of healthcare data. It started 20 years ago and has grown from 12 volunteers to a worldwide organization in over 30 countries. As an organization, in terms of the time it takes to finalize its work products, and the level of expertise required to contribute, HL7 has more in common with a project like Linux than it has with Wikipedia or Flickr. The latter peer production based activities involve much larger groups of volunteers than projects like Linux or HL7. All of these peer production projects do share certain characteristics however.

The HL7 organization review, created by a group of consultants, resulted in a recommendation to strengthen its "top-down command structure". This to (amongst other things) strengthen project management and quality control. Given that the consultants, as well as most of the individuals within HL7 that were interviewed as part of the review proces, are used to working with such a governance model probably lead to this recommendation. Together with a colleague I made the suggestion that the HL7 organization also consider an alternate governance model based on the existing self-organizing nature of the organization. One person who reviewed this alternate governance model called it "out of the box" thinking. Well, it may be radical for those that are used to a top-down directive work environment (which is probably true for most of us).

The introduction of a directive work environment, given the history of HL7, would be like trying to push a rope. The success of, and experiences with peer production models in a Web 2.0 world has to be seized upon and reused when reviewing the processes and governance of open standards organizations such as HL7.


[1] FLOSS Report, http://www.flossproject.org/report/.
[2] Free/Libre Open Source Software Research, http://floss.syr.edu/.
[3] Wikinomics - How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, Don Tapscott/Anthony A. Williams, 2006, http://www.wikinomics.com/book/.
[4] The different aspects of Peer governance, Michel Bauwens, http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/?p=408.
[5] Commons Based Peer Production, Yochai Benkler, 2006, http://www.congo-education.net/wealth-of-networks/ch-03.htm.
[6] The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, 2006, http://www.starfishandspider.com/.

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Ringholm bv is a group of European experts in the field of messaging standards and systems integration in healthcare IT. We provide the industry's most advanced training courses and consulting on healthcare information exchange standards.
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