Open Space Technology (OST) is a group facilitation approach – used in workshops, meetings, or conferences of between 5 to more than 500 people - in which a central purpose, issue, or task is addressed, but which begins with a purposeful lack of any formal initial agenda.
In Open Space sessions, participants are invited to develop their own agenda in multiple working groups around a central theme or question. Each participant is empowered to contribute to the overall discussion and in doing so a session will draw on the diverse knowledge, experience, insights and differing value judgments of the collective group in a setting free from the constraints of a formal program or schedule. This approach encourages meaningful, organic conversations which serve as effective connecting and strengthening experiences between the group, while also encouraging creativity, innovation, and ownership as a natural outcome of the self-organisation process.
Open space sessions are extremely scalable and can be adapted by the facilitator to different contexts as they see fit. A typical session begins with brief introductions by the meeting’s sponsor and a single facilitator familiar with the OST option, who explains the central concept behind ‘self-organisation’. Next, within the first 30-90 minutes of the session, parallel breakout sessions cooperatively develop a working agenda, identifying the key issue to address and establishing a time and place to discuss them. Each group posts these agendas to a common bullet-board, and later reconvenes at theirpre-establishedmeeting period. Multiple working groups take place in a common “marketplace” space in which participants may “shop” for information and ideas between groups. Later, each group circulates their conversation notes to the entire participant body via physical or electronic copies. Throughout, the facilitator is “fully present and totally invisible”, providing support when needed but otherwise allowing space for participants to self-organise.
The UK Department of Health convened a workforce in 2005 to address issues of developing a public health practitioner workforce in England. Thirty four participants drawn from public health organizations and from education took part in an Open Space conference which generated 16 individual workshops related to the central theme. The Open Space event produce a number of local and national partnerships between participants focused on the development of public health practice. It also generated a basic conceptual framework for practitioner use in understanding the process of developing public health practice.
(Brockelhurst et al. “Developing the Public Health Practitioner Work Force in England: Lessons From Theory and Practice”, Public Health (2005), pp. 995–1002.)
Advice for USING this option (tips and traps)
- Participants should be arranged in a circle for small groups, or concentric circles for larger groups (i.e. more than 300 people).
- Participants are not required to suggest any topics for consideration, but it is expected that those who do feel strongly about the issue at hand and can at least lead off on its discussion. It is their responsibility as well to ensure that a subsequent report of this discussion is completed and posted on the communal bulletin-board for other groups’ reference.
- Reserve roughly one hour for introductory remarks and the agenda creation phrase. Individual Open Space sessions typically run for 1 ½ hours. The entire event lasts anywhere from half a day to two days (depending on the number of participants and number of sessions suggested).
- The most successful Open Space sessions feature the following ideal ‘ingredients’: (i) a complex issue or issues to work through, (ii) a diverse body of participants, (iii) a sense of real or potential conflict–i.e. a sense of emotional investment and relevancy felt by the participants towards these issues, and (iv) urgency in the need to arrive at a solution. ("Open Space Technology: A User's Guide," (and seven other books about Open Space), Harrison Owen)
Advice for CHOOSING this option (tips and traps)
Do you have advice on choosing this option? Add it to the comments below.
- Open Space World: is a global community resource, managed by a volunteer webmaster, supported over the last ten years or so by a number of helpers and contributors, and linked to a number of other Open Space community gathering points and resource sites.
Brockelhurst et al (2005). “Developing the Public Health Practitioner Work Force in England: Lessons From Theory and Practice”, Public Health , pp. 995–1002.
Owne, Harrison. Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2008)