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What is open space technology? It is a different way for people to come together and work around an issue of importance to them. In brief, open space can be compared to coffee breaks in traditional conferences, when all the real work gets done. In traditional conferences, the coffee break is the time when people hunt down people with similar interests in order to learn from them or work with them. However, instead of forcing people to get their work done during the breaks, Open Space Conferences are designed to let people do their work throughout the conference. Does it work -- yes. Open space has been used by businesses, community groups, and governments around the world. Participants are often surprised at what their group accomplished in both working together and moving forward on important issues during the conference.

Key outputs of Open Space Technology Conferences include

  • Clear identification of issues which people feel are important.
  • Identification of people willing to take responsibility and work around issues for which they have a passion
  • Networks and work groups which continue to work after the conference
  • Proceedings which can be available the day after the conference

When is open space appropriate? Open Space is effective in situations where a diverse group of people must deal with complex and potentially conflicting material. It is particularly powerful when no one knows the answer, and the ongoing participation of a number of people is required to deal with the questions. Conversely, Open Space should not work when the answer is already known, where someone at a high level thinks he or she knows the answer, or where that someone is the sort that must know the answer, and therefore must always be in charge. In other words, when someone needs to control the conference. One thing is very important when choosing Open Space; the purpose of the conference must be to do real work. That is what will bring people to the conference, and that is what will energize them.

OST is built around a focus question. An example focus question might be: What are the future issues and opportunities for the Asia Region? The key is that the conference focus on a real business issue which is of a passionate concern to those who will be involved. There is no pre-set agenda around this question. When the group meets, the first hour is used to set the stage and develop the agenda. The agenda is developed by asking people who have a passion related to the topic question to take responsibility for convening a group to discuss or work around that passion. Those with a passion around an issue, announce their passion to the group and put it up on a flip chart on the wall. They then take a post-it note with a room and time already on it and stick the post it on the flip chart. This goes on until everyone has spoken their passions. At the end of this process, you have your agenda, complete with conveners, rooms, and times.

Once, all the flip charts are up, the market place of ideas is open, and all the participants sign up for the sessions they wish to attend. Then the conference begins. Note, from this point on, the participants and group are responsible for the conference.

What holds the whole process together is one law and four corollaries. The law is the law of two feet. This law states that, if you are in a session and are not learning nor contributing, you are free go somewhere else. At no point in the conference is anyone required to be anywhere they don't want to be.

There are four corollaries or principles for the conference.

Whoever comes is the right people If no one shows up to your session, when was the last time you had an hour to yourself to think and reflect on a passion of yours. If only one other person shows up, when was the last time you had a good conversation with someone who shares your passion.

Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened This principle opens people up to real learning without worrying about performance or making judgments based on convention bound expectations.

It starts when it starts and is over when it is over In our normal course of work, we act as if we expect people to be creative according to schedule. However, creativity and real work generally do not adhere to schedules. Creativity tends to appear when it appears and often other work needs to be done first to allow for creativity. So just because a meeting starts at 3:00 PM, it does not necessarily mean that a group will be automatically productive at precisely 3:05. As for ending a meeting, there is no reason to continue an hour meeting if the work is completed in 20 minutes. Conversely, if good work is going on, there is no reason to stop, just because the scheduled meeting is over.

Finally, Bumblebees and Butterflies are encouraged. Bumblebees are people who drop in from one meeting to the next to the next, cross-fertilizing the work being done. Butterflies are people who do nothing elegantly (sit at the buffet or pool) and tend to attract good conversation from which ideas, groups, and work develop.

OST has been used with groups from 5 people to groups of 500 people. The more diverse the group the juicier the conference. Probably the only limit to the diversity is if people are bringing Uzis (machine guns) to the conference.

The key to making this type of conference work is to trust the group. Any attempt by the facilitator. organizers, or anyone else to control what people do, discuss, or decide will kill the conference. This is why it is called Open Space. The role of the facilitator is to create and hold the time and space in which participants can explore and work around their passions. This conference recreates the atmosphere of coffee breaks in traditional conferences where most of the real work gets done anyway.

There are many advantages of this type of meeting over traditional conferences when an organizations wants to get work done. For further information on Open Space, Harrison Owen has written Open Space Technology: A Users Guide published by Abbot Publishing, Potomac, MD. Or contact Frank C. Page at Jl. Tunjung III/10, Jakarta ; telephone - 568-0359

Order Open Space Technology: A Users Guide by Harrison Owen from Amazon Com

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