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Guest post by Heath, Seegert & Yang: Open-Source Innovation and Team Diversity

Guest post by Davidson Heath, Assistant Professor of Finance, Nathan Seegert, Associate Professor of Finance, and Jeffrey Yang. All authors are with the University of Utah David Eccles School of Business.

This post is part of a series by the Diversity Pilots Initiative, which advances inclusive innovation through rigorous research. The first blog in the series is here, and resources from the first conference of the initiative are available here.

Diversity in innovation is essential. Varied perspectives, experiences, and skills foster creativity and problem-solving. Diverse teams are more likely to challenge assumptions, leading to novel solutions and breakthroughs. Variety in tastes and background can help identify and serve a wide range of user needs. 

Open-source software (OSS) is often praised for its ability to foster innovation. Part of the rationale is that OSS allows for open collaboration, enabling continuous improvement and adaptation by a diverse community. For example, a vast garden of open-source large language models such as Meta’s Llama 2 are flourishing and are projected to surpass closed-source AI in the near future. 

Figure 1. Capabilities of Machine Learning Models: Open vs. Closed-Source 

The open-source collaborative model has accelerated innovation in many fields. Yet to date, we know little about how these teams form, and how their diversity impacts productivity. How does the diversity of OSS teams compare to the overall contributor pool? And what are the productivity outcomes for OSS teams that increase their diversity compared to those that do not?

In our new paper, entitled “Team Production and the Homophily Trap: Evidence from Open-Source Software,” we examine the dynamics of diversity and productivity in the OSS setting. The key novel concept that we introduce is homophily – the tendency of individuals to associate with others who are similar. This tendency, while natural, has important implications for the diversity and productivity of OSS teams. By analyzing over 40,000 teams developing OSS projects over a ten-year period, we uncover two facts – (1) teams tend to be less diverse than the available pool of contributors, primarily due to homophily and (2) teams that add diversity have higher productivity, suggesting that other teams are “stuck” in an inefficient, low-diversity state. Strikingly, this pattern has been getting worse, not better, over time; as the coder population has expanded, average team diversity has actually fallen.

Figure 2. Trends over Time in Open-Source Coder Population and Team Diversity 

This pattern, which we term the “homophily trap”, is detrimental to development and innovation. For those leaders working on software projects or within engineering, scientific and innovative teams, our study highlights the importance of the following questions: How can organizations avoid the homophily trap?  What specific strategies can be employed to attract and retain diverse team members? What gains can organizations expect to see from diversifying their teams?  

Our study helps to answer some of these questions. First, we show that team diversity has large positive returns to productivity. We find that teams that do escape the homophily trap by increasing their diversity are more likely to continue to be actively developed; have more development activity, conditional on continuing; and attract a larger and more diverse userbase. These effects are especially strong for teams that start at lower levels of diversity, underlining the substantial untapped potential in diversifying team composition.

Second, our study provides suggestions and strategies for enhancing team diversity and escaping the homophily trap. Importantly, initiatives to increase the diversity of the overall pool of contributors can actually backfire because a more diverse pool gives teams more similar peers to assort with. To combat this tendency, teams need policies that directly encourage diversity at the team level. Such policies can break the cycle of homophily-based selection into homogeneous groups. To attract and retain diverse team members, it is important to implement inclusive recruitment practices and establish an environment that values diverse perspectives. Finally, educate your engineers. By promoting awareness of the benefits of diversity, it may be possible to avoid the homophily trap. 

For engineers, scientists, and inventors, we believe the insights from our study highlight the crucial role of team diversity in driving innovation and productivity. Teams might prefer similar peers for ease of coordination and communication and might prefer to recruit known quantities from their social networks, but these benefits are smaller than the gains to productivity from a more diverse team.   And importantly, interventions targeted at increasing diversity on teams can yield improvements in both team diversity and project outcomes. This perspective is particularly relevant for organizations in settings where collaboration and innovation are paramount.

Three main takeaways:

Diversity Drives Innovation: Diversity in teams fosters creativity and problem-solving. It is a positive input into innovative breakthroughs and addressing a wide range of user needs.The Homophily Trap: Our study uncovers a “homophily trap” in open-source software teams, where teams are less diverse due to a preference for similarity, limiting their potential. Quasi-experimental estimates suggest an increase in team diversity results in a 2.4 percentage point increase in the likelihood that a project remains active in the subsequent year. An increase in team diversity also leads to significant increases in the size and diversity of the project’s userbase.Strategies to Enhance Diversity: To mitigate the homophily trap, our study suggests promoting diverse team formation, targeting low-diversity teams in particular, and creating supportive environments for diverse talent.

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