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Striking a balance between trust and control in a virtual organization: a content analysis of open source software case studies



Abstract. Many organization theorists have predicted the emergence of the networked or virtual firm as a model for the design of future organizations. Researchers have also emphasized the importance of trust as a necessary condition for ensuring the success of virtual organizations. This paper examines the open source software (OSS) ‘movement’ as an example of a virtual organization and proposes a model that runs contrary to the belief that trust is critical for virtual organizations. Instead, I argue that various control mechanisms can ensure the effective performance of autonomous agents who participate in virtual organizations. Borrowing from the theory of the ‘McDonaldization’ of society, I argue that, given a set of practices to ensure the control, efficiency, predictability and calculability of processes and outcomes in virtual organizations, effective performance may occur in the absence of trust. As support for my argument, I employ content analysis to examine a set of published case studies of OSS projects. My results show that, although that trust is rarely mentioned, ensuring control is an important criterion for effective performance within OSS projects. The case studies feature few references to other dimensions of McDonaldization (efficiency, predictability and calculability), however, and I conclude that the OSS movement relies on many other forms of social control and self-control, which are often unacknowledged in OSS projects. Through these implicit forms of control, OSS projects are able to secure the cooperation of the autonomous agents that participate in project teams. I conclude by extrapolating from these case studies to other virtual organizations.

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