Why is mass customisation so important for the future of OSS?

McDonald’s hit a peak moment of productivity by getting to a mythical scale, with a limited menu and little in they way of customization. They could deliver a burger for a fraction of what it might take a diner to do it on demand.
McDonald’s now challenges the idea that custom has to cost more, because they’ve invested in mass customization.
Things that are made on demand by algorithmic systems and robots cost more to set up, but once they do, the magic is that the incremental cost of one more unit is really low. If you’re organized to be in the mass customization business, then the wind of custom everything is at your back.
The future clearly belongs to these mass customization opportunities, situations where there is little cost associated with stop and start, little risk of not meeting expectations, where a robot and software are happily shifting gears all day long
.”
Seth Godin
in “On demand vs. in stock

We’ve all experienced the modern phenomenon of “the market of one.” We all want a solution to our own specific needs, whilst wanting to pay for it at an economy of scale. For example, to continue the burger theme, I rarely order a burger without having to request a change from the menu item (they all seem to put onions and tomatoes on, which I don’t like).

One of the challenges of the OSS market segments I tend to do most work in (the tier-one telcos and utilities) is that they’ve always needed a market of one approach to fit their needs (ie heavy customisation, with few projects being even similar to any previous ones). This approach comes with an associated cost of customisation (during the commissioning and forever after) as well as the challenge in finding the right people to drive these customisations (yes, you may’ve noticed a shortage too!).

If we can overcome this challenge with a model of repeatability overlaid onto customised requirements (ie mass customisation) then we’re going to reduce costs, reduce risks, reduce our reliance on a limited supply of resources and improve quality / reliability.

But OSS is a bit more complex than the burger business (I imagine, having never learnt much about the science of making and delivering burgers to order). So where do we start on our repeatability mantra? Here are a few ideas but I’m sure you can think of many more:

  1. Systematising the OSS product ordering process, whether you make the process self-serve (ie customers can log on to build a shopping cart) or more likely, you streamline the order collection for your sales agents to build a shopping cart with customers
  2. Providing decision support for the install process, guiding the person doing the install in real-time rather than giving them an admin guide. The process of setting up databases, high-availaility, applications, schema, etc will invariably be a little different for each customer and can often take days for top-end installs
  3. Reducing core functionality down to the features that virtually every customer will use, working hard to make those features highly modularised. They become the building blocks that customisations can be built around
  4. Building a platform that is designed to easily plug in additional functionality to create bespoke solutions. This specifically includes clever user experience design to help them find the right plug ins for their requirements rather than confusing them in the vast array of choice
  5. Wherever possible, give the flexibility in data rather than in applications / code
  6. Modularisation of products and processes as well as functionality
  7. Build models of intent that are abstracted from the underlying technology layers

The transient demands facilitated by a future of virtualised networks makes this modularity and repeatability more important than its ever been for OSS.

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