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When I first started working for Akvo three years ago, it took me a while to get my head round it. About a year in fact. Not only is what Akvo does inherently misunderstandable and frequently misunderstood, but also how it does it is rather unique and somewhat counter-intuitive for anyone who has ever worked pretty much anywhere else. For me it’s summed up by two words – open and collaborative.

Akvo is a non-profit enterprise working in the international development sector, but we don’t “do” development projects (misunderstanding no 1) or fund them (no 2) and we’re not an NGO (no 3). We make open source software tools for the people that do implement or fund development projects, to help them do it all better, with more transparency and accountability. We operate in the development aid sector, but we’re not of that sector – in fact we’re quite self-consciously different to it because when Jeroen van der Sommen and Thomas first got together to create Akvo in 2006, they did so because they wanted to change how things were done.

Akvo is undergoing a period of very rapid growth at the moment. The value of projects served by its tools has grown more than eight-fold in the past two years and lots of new people are joining – sometimes around one a fortnight – often in countries that are new areas for Akvo too. So it’s an interesting time because the way things are done is changing fast and becoming necessarily more formalised and reproducible. This requires an element of naval-gazing; you have to have a clear sense of what makes you who you are in order to maintain that intact as you grow. It’s also a risky time because it’s very easy to fail at keeping it intact. I confess, I find all this sort of stuff really interesting.

Thomas asked me to write this blog because it’s interesting for him, as a founder of Akvo, to hear what it’s like for people who join the team further down the line. My experience has been largely very positive, and most of the positive bits have been very very positive. Those are the bits that are most interesting to me because they are the aspects that make Akvo different to other organisations I’ve worked for. They are what I’m highlighting in this blog.

Open and transparent

Because Akvo is an open source organisation that makes open source software and promotes transparency (Thomas recently wrote a detailed blog all about this), the way it does things is different to many – probably most – other organisations. At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s more open. We don’t work on stuff in secret and then unveil it with a big fanfare when we feel it’s ready for public consumption. We try to make all our work – and the entire journey of the organisation – discoverable so that others can find it, use it and improve it. Because ultimately the goal is to improve how things are done, not to be the ones to succeed at doing them.

I’ve rarely heard anyone at Akvo use phrases like “competitive intelligence” or “market share”. No one has ever asked me to increase “brand awareness within target audiences” or “to steal a march on the competition”. I now realise that I’ve spent a working lifetime doing those kinds of things and it wasn’t until it all stopped that I fully understood how truly oppressive and depressing it was – how much of a counterproductive waste of energy and resources. I had an inkling, of course, which was why I switched from the corporate (mostly IT) sector to the voluntary sector a decade ago. It didn’t help. (And that, when you think about it, is truly depressing. I blogged about it in 2011. It’s also part of the reason why Akvo was founded.)

To be released from all that stuff was a very liberating experience. But it was also somewhat discombobulating because it’s counter to so much accepted wisdom about how enterprises and society function and it was also very different to how I’d always worked. I had to dismantle half my brain and reassemble it differently, which took a bit of time.

Competitive does not = creative

I have often heard executives in IT companies say – usually to sceptical, eye-rolling journalists – that their organisation has no real competitor. They mean, of course, because its products are so fabulously ground-breaking and unique that no one else comes close. (Their competitors usually say the same thing about their own products, hence the eye-rolling.) On the other side of the coin, I’ve also heard a lot of talk in charities and non-profit organisations about collaboration and pooling of resources. And of course it’s not always just talk – lots of charities do work together to achieve great stuff. But it all usually crumbles when it involves sharing or diverting funding streams out of their own coffers, because charities are at least as focused on the bottom line as any private enterprise. There is no-one more single-minded and hard-nosed than a charity fundraising director (at least in my UK experience of them).

It wasn’t until I discovered Akvo that I found an organisation that really didn’t actually have any competitors. By which I mean that when we find someone doing something similar to us we get all excited and start looking at how we can collaborate and build on each other’s work. Two good examples are setting up a hub for like-minded organisations in Amsterdam with Text to Change and the 1% Club and joining forces with Water for People to take forward the development of FLOW. There are lots more.

This approach – i.e. collaborating instead of competing – is how nearly everything in the world should work but mostly doesn’t. It’s positive and creative instead of reactive and driven by fear. You can’t innovate if you’re continually fixated on how what you’re doing compares to what everyone else is doing.  I really hope this non-competitive trait doesn’t change too much as we grow.

Recently at a BBQ I was chatting to a friend about his job in an advertising agency with a roster of very large household-name clients. He talked about how difficult it is working with organisations like Microsoft because everything – EVERYTHING – has to be approved centrally by “corporate”. Nothing at all can be communicated without their say-so. I thought to myself, “I know exactly what that’s like – been there, done that, no thanks!”

This is another crucial aspect of an open source culture. Thomas and Mark have coined the phrase “discoverable communications” to describe it. In a nutshell, it means there is no centralised “corporate” control over what and how employees communicate. Most of us try to blog, tweet, film, photograph and post about our work as we go so that we build up an online reference library that has many different uses, some of which no one can yet imagine. This incidentally is also the philosophy behind Akvo RSR. The information we post is publicly available but it’s also really useful for us internally. For example, the quickest way for new starters to get up to speed with what they need to need to know about Akvo is to browse the blog. And the way most of us stay in touch with what our colleagues are doing is to follow the staff twitter feed.

But is it just me?

As it’s three years since I started working for Akvo, it’s quite hard for me to remember now just what it felt like when I joined. So I asked some colleagues whether they shared a similar experience of disorientation. The short answer was no, not really, or at least not exactly. But they did have some interesting reflections about what struck them as different to previous organisations they’d been part of.

Henry, programme manager for Akvo FLOW who is based in Washington DC, joined Akvo a year ago from the World Bank which is a very large bureaucracy with all that that entails. He told me “I was ready to leave all that behind. Akvo was the complete opposite. You can feel free to raise a good idea for discussion here and it will get taken seriously – there’s no hierarchy in that sense and we have room for those discussions.”

Francis is a partnerships assistant based in our East African hub in Nairobi. His experience was similar to Henry’s. “It can be very frustrating when you work in an organisation with strict reporting protocols, especially if you have deadlines to meet. You have to go through so many layers of approvals that projects end up over-running. At Akvo, if you want to do something, you go directly to the team members you need to interact with and get stuff done quickly. I’ve worked for organisations that described themselves as open source before but they were private companies and in reality nothing was shared with other organisations. It was more about the tools they used – it cost less to use open source software so it was about the profit. When they made developments to the code they didn’t share it back to the open source community but because they were so closed and secretive no one knew. When Akvo took on FLOW one of the first things that the team did was to release the code to the open source community.”

Emily is a communications manager like me but based in New York (I’m in London) and has a lot of experience of working for large multinational corporations in the IT sector. She said, “Ultimately, what big companies care about is their shareholders. That causes two things to happen. Firstly you spend a lot of time and energy working on an endless cycle of big product launches that everyone hopes will boost the share price. Secondly, you try to position the organisation in a good light by accentuating the good news and spinning the bad. Leaving that behind was a big change for me. Akvo is far more forthcoming about the good, the bad and the ugly. I could never imagine an employee of any other organisation I worked for writing an entry on the company blog listing bullet points of everything that went wrong on a recent training course they ran.”

Linda, Akvo’s illustrator and graphic designer based in London, commented, “Most places I’ve worked, particularly architect firms, were very inward looking by comparison with Akvo. They weren’t afraid of competition exactly because they thought they were better anyway. Architects want to leave a mark on the world with their name on in it. Akvo is not like that all because it puts itself in the background and tries to put its partners, the people using its tools, in the spotlight. I find that quite special.”

It doesn’t always work

I agree, Akvo feels special to me too. That’s not to say it’s without its own ‘special’ challenges. For example, having such a geographically distributed team – with many people working from home or in very small offices and some people travelling quite a lot of the time – isn’t always conducive to collaborative working. Skype helps a lot but it’s not the same as sitting around a table or perching on the end of someone’s desk for a chat. The folks in Delhi and Washington DC, who need to liaise with each other quite a lot, rarely get to talk without someone having to work late or get up early. And even when time-zones aren’t such an issue, keeping communication flowing with people in other offices – and with the outside world – requires quite a lot of effort. People are busy and it doesn’t always happen. But when plates do get dropped, at least we can talk about it openly, sort it out, learn from it and move on quickly. And then write a blog about it in case anyone else is interested.

Jo Pratt is a communications manager at Akvo