By Michael A. Braun – EEM/3 (ERASMUS)
In conferences or meetings coffee breaks can be the most interesting part. Topics that are touched only few or not on the agenda often are the beginning of great discussions in small groups. People then are exchanging their experiences with other conference members, they are telling about solutions they reached in their own working environment and if the discussion is going to become too specific one can move fast to another interesting group. But how is it possible to transfer this huge dynamic potential and this motivating atmosphere into regular processes of work? Harrison Owen, an independent organization consultant from the US, was asking himself the same question 1986 after having organized several conferences. Therefore he started to develop the ‘open space technology’ (OST) for groups. This essay is going to explain the method’s idea and the way it works. There will be also some evaluation about the cases in which it can be used and in the end a short conclusion can be found. Appendix 3 tries to give an overview of the contents as well.
According to zur Bonsen  this method, mostly organized as a workshop or conference, makes it possible to solve ill-defined tasks through letting different people work together. They will share their knowledge and their intelligence that then is used to tackle this problem. The main reason to organize such event, it mainly lasts between one and three days, is to get out more of the creative potential of each single person. The procedure [Owen, 2001] is suitable for groups between about 25 to nearly 1.000 persons either from business contexts or for voluntary groups as well. Participants are able to have completely different backgrounds e.g. in culture & ethnicity, languages, occasion, political statement, sexual preferences, education and so on. Therefore OST offends straight against all recognized theories about organizing conferences and it could be assumed that this leads to a complete chaos. But it definitely does not as can be seen later.
Most conferences do have a general topic (e.g. future of the corporation, improvement of customer relationship or the co-operation between different departments) but never an agenda. OST can be suitable for nearly every topic as long as it is necessary to generate ideas or to develop new strategies. But the technology should not be applied for ‘easy’ cases in which solutions are already available or a specific solution has to be introduced (top managements’ favourites) – OST might give a completely different answer. As well if there is no possibility or no will to conversion. These points should be mentioned in the beginning of the conference. Because then all participants come together at one place where they are asked to present their own ideas to talk about in future – the so-called marketplace of ideas. This means if someone has got a specific, personally important, issue to tackle he or she can describe it in the auditory and write it on a poster that will be pinned on the wall. The first few minutes are mostly without any action. But then, lets say after e.g. two suggestions are made there will be soon much more of them. This process ends when there are no more ideas coming up. Now all participants have to decide individually (filter to sort out between important and less important) which discussion group they would like to join. After it is clear which topics would fit to most of the people the work can begin quickly. Therefore all workshops are meeting in their especially prepared rooms. Now the further process is a task for all involved not only the person who has had the idea.
The OST is not supposed to have many rules. And in fact Owen  says there are only five easy principles (appendix 2) to consider: (1) Whoever comes are the right people. (2) Whenever it starts it is the right time and each beginning is the right beginning. (3) Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened. (4) Whenever it is over it is over. (5) The law of two feet. – If anyone feels they are neither learning nor contributing, they can go somewhere more productive. These persons can be called ‘bees’ (they are moving sometimes) or ‘butterflies’ (they often walk around to inform themselves and having a chat). Further on the person who had the idea is asked to begin and to run the workshop. This means also to manage to get a final report till the end of the session, which will be presented in front of all conference members as well. To gain the best results, participants are supposed to record ideas. And subsequent reporting back to the conference organizers is essential so that the learning process is not lost and can be reviewed later. The duration of such meetings can be one, two or more hours. It does not matter. The only thing is to satisfy all motivated group members - the less motivated will move soon automatically.
But how does the open space technology work? Which effects can it have to both now to the participating people and on the long run to the organization? Most authors argue that motivation and participant involvement is the key for OST’s success. According to Neal  ‘nothing is magic about the four principles and the law of two feet, except that they are immensely powerful and harness natural energy and commitment. People are there because they want to be.’ People report that as soon as they realise they have more responsibility they gain much more desire to work. And Petri  therefore suggests this method should be seen in the context of ‘empowerment’ because of a completely changed paradigm of employees. While others call it ‘guidance from the bottom’ [Klemm, 2000]. It sets individual and collective energies free, opens the know how of all participants and creates inspiration and creativity within the group of participants. The method is seen as to be most successful when groups are formed of heterogeneous backgrounds and fields of work. Especially when the task to be solved is ill-defined, complex and for which there is so far no answer as well. In this way Harrison’s method generates enthusiasm, uses societies diversity and masters complexity in a very short time.
To conclude, the advantages of this technology are various and its fields to use are wide. Probably strong gains in participants’ creativity and motivation and unexpected as well as complex solutions are the key points. OST uses the relaxed feeling, which comes up while coffee breaks and transfers it into ‘hard business’ environment - but people do not feel like this. Additionally another key point of this successful technique might be the highly diversified structure of participants. But therefore it is necessary, that all participants listen carefully and open minded to others and value their ideas critically.
This technology essentially needs its three mechanisms (appendix 2): market place (idea presentation), circle (creative group) and the bulletin board (presentation of solutions in the end). But also the five principles are necessary for a successful process. Maybe these two are the most obvious different parts compared to other ways of gaining and managing creativity in large groups. If managers apply this method they are also suggested to change established paradigms in the way they lead their workforce. While using OST in an organization employees start getting more responsibility for and interest in corporate processes. But the reached ideas and solutions have to be transferred into daily live. This might be not be that difficult because within the conference people do both the talking about the right challenges at the right time (the general meaning of the principles) and they are able to give suitable solutions for them as well. Within the workshops there were notes made which give the possibility to follow the flow of arguments and to reconstruct the way of participants thought. For an practical example please see appendix 1.
Nowadays it is widely suggested that open space is not only the way to changes, it is a change, a innovation, itself. Participants are able to think in new dimensions or categories. They are allowed to feel completely free on one hand, but on they other hand they are developing practical solutions as well. Open space therefore is seen as a fundamental change of their way of thinking, their relations and operating methods. Workforce always are containing a huge dynamic potential and this method makes it possible to provide a motivating, stimulating and comfortable atmosphere to gain of it. Strange, that this all comes about a person, who realised that conference participants more like to go for coffee breaks than to meetings itself. Maybe in future we all should have a better look to what employees need.