Is Open Source HR Software HR-Friendly or Just Trendy?
'Open source' is a media-friendly label that at time almost seems to guarantee agreement. While it is true that there are some very strong open source contenders (such as OrangeHRM) in the HR software world (both in the HRMS and the individual human resource process categories), there remain some risks to balance the opportunities. A 2011 report from Ernst & Young (E&Y), Open Source Software in Business-Critical Environments, takes a cautiously optimistic look: "The question is not whether companies and public institutions will use open source software in the future, but rather how they will do so.", highlighting a series of risks and recommendations.
Open Source HR Software Pitfall #1: Licensing
Software is defined as open source by its distribution rights under an Open Source Initiative-recognized license—GNU, GNU Affero, GNU Library, etc.—allowing free availability and source code access. Contrary to common belief, open source use involves strict license compliance issues; for example, "If, under a particular license, open source code is integrated into in-house software due to an oversight and then distributed outside the organization, this can result in the mandatory publication of the entire programming code for the in-house software." Exactly the same due diligence process is required as for commercial or 'closed source' solutions.
Open Source HR Pitfall #2: Unmanaged use
E&Y found frequent unauthorised use of open source software within organizations with individuals and teams bypassing the procurement and IT decision-makers and accessing applications direct. "Apart from the legal risk this poses, this can also result in a jumble of products and components that is hard to maintain in the long term and leads to increased costs." Generic, low visibility applications such as MindTouch and GroupOffice can fill perceived capability gaps but may contravene organizational IT governance. E&Y recommend a proper evaluation, including "open source specific characteristics such as the open source license, community size, developer heterogeneity, support availability, release management and legal ownership."
Open Source HR Pitfall #3: Reliability and security
The Open Source Initiative states, "The foundation of the business case for open-source is high reliability. Open-source software is peer-reviewed software. Mature open-source code is as bulletproof as software ever gets." However, open source HR software applications are rarely developed by programming communities but instead by small, in-house teams as with commercial packages. In this case, open source software may guarantee no greater reliability – as usual a robust selection and review process is called for. Also, some organizations are naturally wary of the security issues of available source code. Again, these concerns can only be assuaged by a rigorous selection exercise.
Open Source HR Pitfall #4: Technical support
E&Y warn, "Maintenance and support for an open source product is not always guaranteed." The report distinguishes between two project types: "Those led by organizations and those coordinated by a decentralized group of developers." In the latter instance, support can be prompt and cost-efficient but carries no guarantees as to either accuracy or availability. Organization-led HR software solutions are likely to have support options in line with a service level agreement although they may also, in the absence of the license fee, be charged for as an add-on service.
Open Source HR Pitfall #5: Unintentional reliance
One of the benefits of open source software is the absence of vendor lock-in. Source code freedom reduces dependency on the software provider for support, changes, updates and so on. However, to maximise this benefit, a degree of technical expertise is required. The expertise must either be developed in-house or acquired by hiring external capacity. The in-house option may be cost-effective depending on the scale of the organization and its level of open source adoption. The external route may simply shift the reliance from one outside body to another. E&Y is clear: "At the end of the day, it is in the nature of software to create dependencies. It is important to minimize or at least consciously manage reliance on individual suppliers."
Open Source HR Pitfall #6: The 'free' lunch may not be free
A big selling point of open source software is the absence of the license fee and the lack of ties to a specific provider; it is often described as 'free'. Certainly, the E&Y report cites cost savings as a major opportunity: however, the license is a small component in the total cost of ownership (TCO) as there will be similar training, data migration, and other integration costs with open source as with any other new commercial HR software package. Once any possible 'extras' such as on-going support, add-on modules and software maintenance are factored in, then the expense may start to balance out. Open source HR software can create significant reduction in TCO but, as ever, a proper assessment must be made.
Open Source HR Software – The Bottom Line
The report's message is cautious: "Today, there are practical principles for both perspectives that make the controlled use of open source software even in business-critical environments an option worth considering." E&Y recommend the development of an open source strategy, setting an agreed direction on issues such as guidelines and targets for adoption, procurement protocols, evaluation criteria and an overall risk analysis. Ultimately however, whether an open source HR solution is the right choice will depend on the particular organization and its specific business needs.
One of the benefits of open source software is the absence of vendor lock-in. Source code freedom reduces dependency on the software provider for support, changes, updates and so on. However, to maximise this benefit, a degree of technical expertise is required.