Open Space-Online

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How is it possible to accomplish an Open Space Technology (OST) meeting on the web, working only with text and limited visual aids through a desktop browser? That is the aim of Open Space-Online, and by many accounts it does the task effectively. Given the structure of an OST meeting, it would seem difficult to translate this system to an online experience. How is it done – what are the appropriate contexts for using it – and what are its limitations?

Gabriela Ender, the founder of this system, said in an *interview* that the concept came to her by a flash of inspiration in 1999. As an organizational change consultant, she wanted a system that would be easy to use, with virtually no learning curve required for participation, and that could reduce costs to groups sponsoring face-to-face meetings. Until then, there was no widely used online collaboration tool that could offer an effective real-time conference experience using OST.

How Does It Work?

The system Ender developed is text-based – a striking contrast to the multimedia emphasis of recent online collaborative software – and that feature helps to simplify entry for first-time users, eliminating the need for more than a few simple instructions. There is a built-in computerized facilitator, which functions only as a guide to introduce the process to participants and signal the different phases as they come up in the schedule. This device seems to work because the role of a live facilitator in a face-to-face OST meeting is similarly limited to just these functions. Because the system is text-based, it does not require a high-speed internet connection, an important consideration in assembling geographically dispersed participants, some of whom may lack access to the latest technology.

The Online Process

The flow of the online process parallels a live OST meeting. To illustrate the special characteristics of the online experience, I’ve summarized the main steps of the process and added paraphrased observations of one participant from a real OS-Online event. This was a conference that brought together a world-wide group of OST facilitators to discuss trends in use of the method and what they should do to enhance the field. Such a meeting is a common example of an application of OST – a gathering of professionals in one field or members of a large organization who want to discuss future directions of change and set priorities for action. Frauke Godat, a social change activist, blogged some of her impressions as she was participating. (She is referred to as “FG” below, and her actual comments are set in quotation marks.)

Registration
As participants are signing in, they can identify one another and send messages in order to get acquainted. This common space for open discussion is called the “Foyer.” Similarly a “Cafe” is available during small group sessions and a “Bistro” during breaks.

Frauke reported that in the Foyer, she met people from India, Australia, Europe, the US, Singapore, Taiwan, etc. Gabriela Ender and Harrison Owen both signed on.

Process Introduction In an opening “circle,” there is a brief explanation of the process principles by the automated facilitator (appearing on screen as a cartoon character named COMOSO).

Agenda Setting
FG: After the virtual facilitator introduced the principles of Open Space to the full group of 46 participants, they started identifying issues for the agenda. “I post the question: “How can we use OSonline to create a We Are What We Do community globally?” 14 different sessions were proposed, and each received a time-slot of 40 minutes.

Round 1 Small Group Sessions
FG wrote that during the first round of small group sessions, she realized she wasn’t feeling involved with any of the five discussion topics – though they were all important issues relating to OST. “Half through the first round, I realize it is not the questions that I don’t connect to but having too many people around that I don’t know and I don’t see.”

She moved around from one discussion to another, following the OST “law of two feet” – “If you find yourself in a situation where you aren’t learning or contributing, go somewhere else.”

Instead of staying with the sessions, she then went to the Cafe space and had a series of conversations with participants she found there. That made the first round very stimulating and helped her form new connections with other professionals.

Breaks
FG: During the break between the first and second sessions, she posted a question in the Bistro: that asked how others experienced the first round. Several answered that they had felt confused, as she had.

“… I think confusion that is caused by the chaos of an OS conference is a very important prerequisite to take responsibility and share your passion through posting and hosting your own question and thus create order around your personal needs.”

Rounds 2 and 3 Small Group Sessions
FG: Next round she focuses on a single question – “How can we use OSonline to create learning in virtual communities of practice?” This is one of her central concerns and attending the session devoted to that, rather than moving around, she becomes deeply engaged in the discussion.

In round 3 she hosts the session she initially proposed on how to create a global We Are What We Do community. “The speed of ideas, typing and questions reaches the limit … I really engage in the conversation … .”

Concluding Large Group Session
After the individual sessions are done, the group notes are consolidated, and the large group meets briefly to summarize commitments and future actions.
Also each participant can instantly download a file containing the final notes for every session.

FG: “I leave the conference after being 4 hours online, having had interesting and helpful conversations with total strangers from across the world who have become advisors and possibly mentors for me hosting a We Are What We Do OSonline in the near future.”

You can find Frauke Godat’s full post here.

Typical Applications

Most of the examples of the use of Open Space-Online fall into a few categories:

– Organizational planning

– Change management within large organizations with dispersed staff

– Planning and strategy meetings for groups of professionals

– Formation of new institutional networks across regions or globally

– Public consultation meetings to gather ideas

Online meetings like these are also typical of the face-to-face applications of Open Space Technology. In the next post in this series, I will explore the relevance of this method, both on- and offline, to consensus building processes, conflict resolution and new approaches to public deliberation.

If you have experience with Open Space-Online, I hope you can provide comments here that would give insight about details of using the online tools and the quality of the experience.

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