Open Space meetings -- another great tool for collaboration


Super Moderator
Have you ever been to a conference and came back thinking that your best interactions were at the coffee breaks and meals where you met surprisingly interesting folks at random?

Industry or interest group symposia typically involve sessions on subjects chosen by the organizers and delivered by knowledgeable presenters to a passive audience. The audience may have 5 to 15 minutes to lob questions at the end, and, of course, also has a chance to mingle informally at coffee breaks and at the conference meals.

But there are studies that say that individuals that bridge two disjointed social groups have access to more knowledge, methods, ideas (See, for example, Strategic Network Formation with Structural Holes), and can apply the knowledge of one group to solve problems in another; there is value in having a bridging role. Perhaps what is happening at these coffee brakes is that you are meeting bridging folks, or you, yourself are becoming a bridge -- and not even knowing it.

If informal meets are so valuable, why not observe them, optimize them for value and then make more of them? It seems someone has indeed done just this, and they called it "Open Space".

At WikiSym last week, I had the opportunity to see and participate for my first time in one such "Open Space" meeting/session.

When the session's organizers called it to order, it was simply to explain how it works, all of which took about 15 minutes. Our session was organized by Ward Cunningham (yep, inventor of wikis), and Rut Jesus. They explained the process: Participants organize "sessions" on their own interests. To do this, after the explanation, we took some sharpies and stickies, wrote our session title on the sticky and then stuck the note on a calendar wall. Other folks then write their initials on those notes they like to express their interest in the session. Rut noted that, like in a real Open Space, many creatures thrive in these meets. The bumblebee works furiously on a interesting subject, and acquires concentrated goods to make honey back home. The butterfly just flies carefree back and forth between groups cross-pollinating.

And though the intro was amusing, the best was to come. Initial skepticism vanished soon after the sessions started. Folks gathered in small circles of chairs and discussed interesting subjects, such as graphical wikis and structured information in wikis (many on subjects that probably had too few participants to warrant a full blown sym session anyway). The mini-sessions were intense, with hands-on demos and discussions not possible in a formal setting. Yep, many structural holes were bridged -- met some amazing folks that I'd needed a several dozen coffee breaks to run into.

Only regret not having started a session on using wikis for management systems, but I will next time around. Also, this format is great for engineering, quality or company meetups, so will propose it when I next attend one of those (or post to their respective forii) and thereby bridge some ol'holes. In any case, possibly the best learning I came away with from WikiSym was being exposed to Open Space.

-- Pancho


Inactive Registered Visitor
thanks for this - I went to a conference in Sydney in downunder Australia last week and someone mentioned Open Space too - but I hadn't heard much about it before

from your brief overview it does sound like an interesting technique
@KerrieAnne & @SteelyQueen