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Open space technology (OST) is a method for organizing and running a meeting or multi-day conference, where participants have been invited in order to focus on a specific, important task or purpose.
In contrast with pre-planned conferences where who will speak at which time will be scheduled often months in advance, and therefore subject to many changes, OST sources participants once they are physically present at the live event venue. There is less organised before the meetings than usual.
The agenda and schedule of presentations is partly or mostly unknown until people begin arriving. The scheduling of speakers, topics and locations is created by people attending, once they arrive. At the end of each OST meeting, a debriefing document is created summarizing what worked and what did not work.
The approach was originated by Harrison Owen, an Episcopal priest whose academic background and training centered on the nature and function of myth, ritual and culture. In the middle 1960s, he left academia to work with a variety of organizations including small West African villages, large corporations and NGOs, urban (American and African) community organizations, peace corps, regional medical programs, national institutes of health, and veterans' administration.
Along the way he discovered that his study of myth, ritual and culture had direct application to these social systems. In 1977, he started a consulting company in order to explore the culture of organizations in transformation as a theorist and practicing consultant.
Harrison convened the First International Symposium on Organization Transformation as a traditional conference. Afterward, participants told him the best parts were the coffee breaks. So when he did it again, open space was his way of making the whole of the conference one big coffee break, albeit with a central theme (purpose, story, question, or "myth") that would guide the self-organization of the group.
Owen's experiment was successful enough that the Organization Transformation Symposium continued in open space format for more than twenty years. But soon after the first open space, participants began using open space in their own work and reporting back on their learning. One event, convened in India, around a theme of "The Business of Business is Learning," attracted local media attention that was noticed by the New York Times, who later published their own stories on open space, in 1988 and 1994.  Owen wrote a Brief User's Guide to support further experimentation and practice. Eventually, an expanded guide was published by Berrett-Koehler.
In the 1980s, Owen was considered by many large corporations to be one of several new age consultants whose methods might encourage employee participation and interest in company problems.
"Open space" meetings are to a lesser or greater degree "self-organizing". Participants and speakers have all been invited or paid to attend. After confirming the overall theme and focus, however, the meeting organizer-sponsor is much less active. The details of the daily speaking schedule are to a lesser or greater degree created and organized by attending participants and speakers "on the day of".
Given the potential chaotic nature of open space meetings, when the event begins, the organizer-sponsor gives their best shot at focusing the theme, ground rules, values and energies of the conference. This often includes short introductions of each speaker present.
The organizer-sponsor explains the "self-organizing" process along with any rules for changing times, talks and schedules once they are made public. The ideal event facilitator is "fully present and totally invisible", "holding a space" for participants to self-organize, rather than micro-managing activity and conversations.
Because the agenda of an open space meeting emerges, more like a living thing, what exactly is going to happen or be addressed is unknown to a lesser or greater degree. Still, several meaningful outcomes can be specifically built into the process (safety, trust, courtesy).
Open space meetings are usually convened for a few hours to a few days. At the end of some (especially longer) open space meetings, a proceedings document is compiled from the notes taken in all of the breakout sessions. This is distributed, on paper or electronically, to all participants and used as the basis for prioritizing issues, identifying next steps, and continuing the work beyond the meeting itself.
Where OST has been used
Several other approaches share one or more features with OST: "unconferences", e.g. FooCamp and BarCamp. Both FooCamp and BarCamp are participant-driven, like OST, but neither is organized around a pre-set theme or aimed at solving a problem. The first Foo Camp was organized by Tim O'Reilly and Sara Winge; because Winge had been a student of Owen, many elements similar to OST are used in Foo Camp.
The open space approach was first used in the Agile software development community at the Agile/XP Universe conference in 2002. That group eventually developed into the Agile Alliance, which has supported the use of open space in the Agile community. Since then, Open Space has been used for leading Agile transformation and for requirements gathering in Agile projects.
A design sprint (a meeting technique related to design thinking and promoted by Google Ventures) is similar to OST in that participants are invited by an organizer to work collaboratively on solving a problem, with the help of a facilitator who is trained in running such meetings. (Google also uses OST methods, which one Google engineer described as "almost the opposite of sprints...a minimal designed conversation that still gets groups to a solid set of agreements.")
Some meeting organizers use open space techniques in combination with other methods, to avoid what they see as "shortcomings" of OST, for example an atmosphere that is potentially unfriendly for introverts.
Research on OST in higher education suggests that OST increases learner motivation (Patton et al., 2016;[full citation needed] Pereira & Figueiredo, 2010)[full citation needed] and stimulates critical thinking (Van Woezik et al., 2019).
- Abadesco, Enrique V. Jr. (December 20, 2015). "An updated definition of organizational development". business.inquirer.net. Philippine Daily Inquirer. Archived from the original on April 6, 2016. Retrieved July 18, 2018.
A cursory review of the top ten OD topics, drawn from contents of the OD Practitioner (the quarterly publication of the US-based OD Network) from 2004-2013 reveal the following: Transformation and change; Coaching; Consulting practice; Diversity and inclusion; Appreciative Inquiry; Strategic management; Balanced scorecard approach; Teams; Complexity theory; Dialogic and large group interventions such as World Café by Juanita Brown and Open Space by Harrison Owen and; Leadership development
- Deutsch, Claudia H (April 1, 2018). "Round-Table Meetings With No Agendas, No Tables". NYT. Retrieved July 18, 2018.
An Episcopal priest and self-described civil rights activist, he held various governmental posts before becoming an organizational consultant 15 years ago. He developed the concept of "open space" meetings -- where attendees break into ad hoc groups to discuss topics with at least some consensus the topic has relevance. [the following is not a sentence. Part of citation missing?] After years of hearing people wax eloquent about the good experiences they had at meetings outside of the prearranged sessions.
- Owen, Harrison (April 21, 2008). Open Space Technology: A User's Guide (Third ed.). Berrett-Koehler. ISBN 978-1576754764.
- Cook, Karen (September 25, 1988). "Scenario for a new age". NYT. Retrieved July 18, 2018.
Harrison Owen belongs to a new wave of consultants whose ideas are winning acceptance at some of the nation's largest corporations, including Polaroid, General Motors, TRW and Procter & Gamble. The consultants march under various flags - some are known as New Age consultants, others as transformational technologists or human resources specialists - but they all emphasize the importance of realizing each employee's potential.
- Owen, Harrison (2008). Open space technology : a user's guide. San Francisco, Calif: Berrett-Koehler Publishers. ISBN 9781576754764. OCLC 897008244.
- "What Is Open Space Technology?". OpenSpaceWorld.ORG. Archived from the original on 2015-05-18.
- O'Reilly, Tim (March 8, 2018). "The True Inventor of the Unconference". LinkedIn. Retrieved July 18, 2018.
Sara based the design of Foo Camp in part on the "Open Space" work of Harrison Owen from 1985, who is widely credited with developing the concept. However, Sara just discovered that Alexander von Humboldt, one of the world's greatest scientists, pioneered the idea nearly 200 years ago, in 1828!
- Agile Alliance. "Glossary: Open Space". Agile Alliance. Retrieved June 26, 2020.
- Carey, M. "How Walmart is Going Agile". @MLCarey. Retrieved June 26, 2020.
- Walsh, Sandra (31 March 2016). The OpenXP Solution (1st ed.). doctoral dissertation published via Xlibris. ISBN 9781514447307. Retrieved June 26, 2020.
- Stillman, Daniel (December 1, 2017). "Google Design Sprints: How to build *your* Perfect Week". Medium. Retrieved December 31, 2018.
I was particularly thrilled to see that the Google crew was into Open Space Conversations, since I'm a big fan. They're almost the opposite of sprints: they are an un-designed conversation….or rather a minimal designed conversation that still gets groups to a solid set of agreements.
- Howard, Phil (2005). "Integrating open space 16 technology and dynamic facilitation (PLA 53)" (PDF). Participatory Learning and Action 53: Tools for influencing power and policy. IIED. Retrieved July 16, 2018.
Open space technology is a very successful participatory process, but it has two potential shortcomings: it is difficult to produce documentation of discussions in meetings lasting less than two days, and the process does not always encourage empathic listening among participants. Integrating open space with another participatory process, dynamic facilitation, could address these weaknesses when modest additional resources are available.
- Segar, Adrian (March 28, 2012). "A short critique of Open Space". Conferences That Work. Retrieved July 18, 2018.
Open Space session topics are determined by individuals who stand up in front of the entire group and announce their chosen topic. Generally, this is much easier for extroverts, who have few difficulties speaking to a group extemporaneously, than introverts who tend to shun such opportunities. The end result is that introverts are largely silent during the opening process, and the subsequent Open Space sessions are biased towards those proposed and often dominated by a comfortably-vocal minority.
- Van Woezik, Tamara; Reuzel, Rob; Koksma, Jur (2019). "Exploring Open Space: A self-directed learning approach for higher education". Cogent Education. 6 (1). doi:10.1080/2331186X.2019.1615766.
- openspaceworld.org Supporting and supported by Open Space practitioners worldwide. The site offers materials (or links to materials) in 20 different languages.
- openspaceworld.net wiki for stories about Open Space technology
- openspaceworld.com website of the originator of Open Space Technology, Harrison Owen
- Owen, Harrison. "A brief user's guide to Open Space Technology". Retrieved 2008-07-29.
- " A grounded theory study on the value associated with using open space technology by Richard 'D' Norris Abstract of the HRDV 6000 Report Webster University, Merritt Island, FL, May 2000 accessed 9/9/09