I've attempted to explore the nature of participation within open source communities before. However, I've come away feeling as if I didn't convey exactly how/why actively participating in the open source software development life cycle is valuable. Currently, participation in open source communities is viewed through the narrow lens of perception as more an act of goodwill instead of what it actually is an investment. So while the topic of TCO/ROI for open source software has been dissected, debated and analyzed over and over, the boundaries of creative thought surrounding the notion of an investment in open source have remained static.
The nature of open source software ecosystems is such that the dynamics of contributing or "giving back" takes on added dimensions. Contribution is commonly viewed as somewhat of a nice thing to do in light of "getting the software for free," much the same way that users contribute monetary funds to the producer of free software. However, this perspective stems from a narrow understanding of the governing dynamics of open source software. A donation is rendered out of compassion whereas an investment is made with the expectation of a commensurate return. Contribution to and participation within open source communities should be classified as closer to the latter, even if the resource invested is not monetary. In essence, the same clear-minded cost-benefit mindset that drives commercially driven exchanges should also be at the heart of engaging an open source community, especially within the enterprise.
Yet it's taken for granted that only a minority of total users will ever become active participants within an open source community at one time or another. When the fact is, there is far more to gain from aligning the realities surrounding the specific use of open source and the community behind it than from remaining inactive. Any IT team (large or small) using high quality open source without understanding how/why to interact with the community to influence the roadmap, issue code bounties or sponsor a feature/developer is behind the eight ball. Low/no cost use is only the first layer of benefits to be realized through open source. However, an adept understanding of the other layers prevents the unsustainable and sub-optimal deployment of open source.
Unfortunately, it is the IT budget rather than long-term IT strategy that often provides the window for open source in the enterprise. Too often, once open source has delivered the initial set of lower costs of acquisition the rest of its value proposition is cast aside. At this point the open and transparent ecosystem surrounding quality open source becomes a brand of anonymous, cheap labor. The point is that an implementing enterprise is on the hook to grasp the intersection of the open source model and long range IT strategy. Simply put, IT's focus isn't to be cheaper but to plain and simply support core business objectives better.
The best method of identifying the advantages of membership in community driven technology is to assume an investment-oriented view as opposed to one which is fundamentally risk-oriented. In the same way that when evaluating an investment risk isn't ignored, rather it is accounted for and measured against the potential returns. Likewise, the prospect of contributing to open source communities should also be measured in an objective, judicious manner which reflects the benefits and risks of engaging an open source community. Granted, it helps to have a commercial presence with which to coordinate such activities (Intalio's Demand-Driven-Development is a sterling example of how the costs and risks of product management can be mitigated through collaborative development with a commercial open source vendor) but that's not to say that it remains a hard requirement.
It strikes me as interesting that enterprises are being sold open source primarily on the premise that the availability of source code directly translates into flexibility with little-to-no mention of how the model is capable of generating novel ways of creating and maintaining technology. This is, at once, both a travesty and an invaluable source of opportunity, as the companies which step to exploratory forefront will be the ones that are first to harness the next wave of extreme competitive advantage.