Is it, or is it not, Open Space

Posted by Doc
Jan 22 2009

Lots of terms get tossed around: Open Space Technology, open spaces, unconference, bar camp, demo camp, product camp, foo camp,…

I’d argue that all of these “unconference” approaches derive from the work done by Harrison Owen, who wrote the book “Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide”.

In that book, he describes the process of coming together, creating the agenda, holding time and space, self-organizing, holding discussions, and closing. Yes, there’s more, but those are some of the key aspects of Open Space Technology. For me, when I say Open Space, or write it, it is (a) capitalized, recognizing that it is a proper name, and (b) refers to the process originated by Harrison Owen.

Recently, I’ve seen and heard people talking about “open spaces” as if there is some definition of that, and clearly implying that they are confusing Open Space Technology (OST) with something else.  That something else seems to be the misconception that there is no structure or planning to OST, and that any time you provide an open space, chairs, and a whiteboard or two, you have “open spaces”.

I admit that this frustrates me, because it diluates and confuses something that I think is wonderful and powerful. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get the idea across so that others will grok it.

Of course, the simplest thing is to read the book or the entry on Wikipedia. Sadly, most folks won’t do that.

Next is for people to experience a “real” Open Space. In my experience, not only do they get it then, but they also fall in love with it. Sadly, there are too many people who think they know what OST is about, but deliver some perverted or incomplete version of it that matches some internal model, but not the system that many of us love.

One of the things that brought this home to me was a comment by an acquaintance after I’d finished the closing circle at an Open Space:

  • “I told a friend of mine that I was going to this open space thing. He told me he doesn’t like open space. I asked him if he’d ever been to one of Doc’s open spaces. He said no. I told him that he hadn’t been to an Open Space yet, in that case.”

While I’m proud that someone thinks that’s what it’s about – that it’s me being wonderful and so forth – I’m equally dismayed that my acquaintance hit on something important, but stated it in a way that takes away from OST and puts it on me.

Yes, I believe that the facilitator is important. We don’t do much, really, but what we do is important. What my acquaintance pointed out to me was something I had observed – a facilitator who doesn’t get it, who doesn’t understand that the event belongs to and is about the participants, who doesn’t set the stage for them to take that ownership and self-organize – that facilitator is violating the whole idea behind OST.


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