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Open Space Technology: An effective tool for consultation



This paper provides an introduction to Open Space Technology (OST) and its key principles, and encourages the consideration of OST as a potential method for consulting with students and staff on important issues or questions where there is diversity and conflict and where there appears to be no clear solution. The paper also provides an example of OST in use, briefly outlining how the method was used for initial exploratory data collection as part of a 4 stage PhD research project examining the identities of practitioners (teachers, trainers, tutors, instructors, facilitators etc.) within the Irish Further Education and Training (FET) sector, and the impact of recent (post 2013) sectoral changes on these identities.
Paper presented (and included in a book of proceedings) at the Waterford Teachers’ Centre,
Kilkenny Education Centre and Co. Wexford Education Centres’ Annual Research Conference
(October, 2016) - The Visionary Practitioner: Learning from the Research
Open Space Technology: An effective tool for consultation
Sarah Bates Evoy (
This paper provides an introduction to Open Space Technology (OST) and its key principles,
and encourages the consideration of OST as a potential method for consulting with students and
staff on important issues or questions where there is diversity and conflict and where there
appears to be no clear solution.
The paper also provides an example of OST in use, briefly outlining how the method was used
for initial exploratory data collection as part of a 4 stage PhD research project examining the
identities of practitioners (teachers, trainers, tutors, instructors, facilitators etc.) within the Irish
Further Education and Training (FET) sector, and the impact of recent (post 2013) sectoral
changes on these identities.
Introduction to Open Space Technology
Harrison Owen developed Open Space Technology (OST) in the 1980s in the hope of creating
spaces that inspired the synergy and excitement of a good coffee break (Owen, 2008). Since
then OST has been used successfully in 124 countries, with millions of people, within multiple
contexts including commerce, education (including adult education), government and
community settings (Kenny, 2014; McDonald et. al., 2009; Owen, 2008). OST sessions can
last for up to 5 days or for as long as a typical second level school hour (50 minutes). The
number of participants can and does vary, from as few as 5, up to over 2000 (Herman, 2006;
Owen, 2008; McDonald et al., 2009).
OST as a method brings people together through dialogue and activity, and provides structures
to gather the thoughts, feelings, experiences, ideas and suggestions of interested, self-selected
participants in relation to a key theme. It creates a space where all participants are viewed as
equal, which requires individuals to ‘shed their power roles’ (McDonald et al., 2009:71). The
agenda is designed by those present and not pre-determined (McDonald et. al., 2009; Owen,
OST draws on ‘theories of complexity, self-organisation and open systems’ (McDonald et al.,
2009:70). Owen (2008) asserts that OST is most effective in situations where the theme is
complex, with no clear solution or way forward, and with groups of people with diverse
The Five Conditions of Use
When considering whether OST is an appropriate method to use with a group, Owen (2008)
suggests that it is best to evaluate whether the five ‘Conditions of Use’ (Owen, 2008:19) are
1. Presence of a real issue to be addressed - OST is not simply about engaging in an
interesting process;
2. Presence of an issue of great complexity;
3. Diversity in relation to the people and views present;
4. Real passion for the issue among the people present;
5. Need for the issue to be dealt with urgently, with ‘a decision time of yesterday’ (Owen,
Key ingredients Passion, Responsibility and Voluntary Participation
Owen (2008) places strong emphasis on certain essential ingredients for OST to work. These
include ‘passion’ for the issues being addressed; the taking of ‘responsibility’ by the
participants to contribute fully and in the best way for them; and ‘voluntary’ self-selection on
behalf of the participants (Owen, 2008:29). According to Owen (2008:29-30), ‘being a
volunteer is the prime prerequisite for the full expression of passion and responsibility’.
The four principles and one law of OST
OST processes are built on four principles and one law, which are visually displayed in sign
form around the spaces where the OST event will take place, setting the scene for how the event
is run (Owen, 2008).
The four principles are the following:
1. ‘Whoever comes is the right people’ (Owen, 2008:115).
This principle implies that it is not important how many people come (either to the OST
session, or to individual topic groups within the overall session), or what their outside
roles are, but that they are the right people, because they are the ones who cared enough
about the issue or topic to come.
2. ‘Whatever happens is the only thing that could have’ (Owen, 2008:115).
This principle implies that organisers and facilitators should accept and cherish what
happens, and not spend time and energy wishing to control what cannot be controlled,
and focusing on ‘should-have beens, could-have-beens, or might-have beens’ (Owen,
3. ‘Whenever it starts is the right time’ (Owen, 2008:115).
This principle implies that organisers and facilitators in particular should not get hung-
up on starting times. For OST to work, the process and all that takes place within it
cannot be pre-ordained or controlled. For meaningful, useful, productive engagement,
‘creativity and spirit’ need to be present and ‘neither pays much attention to the clock’
(Owen, 2008:119). The session will, and must be allowed to, start and finish when the
group is moved to action or ready to break away from the discussions/action. This leads
onto the last principle.
4. ‘When it’s over, it’s over’ (Owen, 2008:115).
This principle implies if the objectives have been completed before the expected finish
time, the session needs to end, or move on, at that point. This principle also allows for
‘When it’s not over, it’s not over’, meaning that a group can decide not to move on or
finish should they wish to stay in a specific discussion etc. (Owen, 2008:120). This may
need to be managed (e.g. moved to a different location) but should be encouraged and
facilitated (Owen, 2008:115-120).
By applying these principles, traditional aspects of organised consultation such as ‘control,
expertness and hierarchy’ (Kenny, 2014:87) are replaced by an acceptance of those present and
an acceptance of whatever takes place within the framework of an OST event.
The one law of OST is ‘The Law of Two Feet/Mobility’ (Owen, 2008:120). This law
encourages participants to move if they feel they are in a situation where they are no longer
learning, and/or have nothing left to contribute. In these situations it is time to join a different
discussion where they can be productive (Owen, 2008:120-121). It gives permission to
participants to move in and out of the big group, the smaller groups and indeed the event itself,
depending on what feels right for them. The Law of Two Feet/Mobility places responsibility
on individual participants to fully participate in the best way for them (Owen, 2008).
Much of the work of the OST facilitator is completed during the preparation stages of an event
and the setting up of the event space. During the event itself, the facilitator’s role is to explain
to participants the OST tools and techniques, then step back and allow the tools and techniques
to work (Owen, 2008).
Guaranteed outcomes
OST, when the guidelines are followed by organisers, facilitators and participants, comes with
4 guaranteed outcomes.
If participants choose to fully participate and take responsibility for putting forward any topics
they choose to have discussed, then
1. All issues of concern to anyone present will have been raised.
2. All issues raised will have been discussed.
If time allows and computer support is present
3. A full report of the issues and discussions will be in the hands of all participants when
leaving (though this can be provided later to participants if necessary).
If time allows and if it is part of the agenda to identity future actions, then
4. An action plan, prioritising actions within stated timeframes, will be produced.
(Owen, 2008:37-38)
Not all OST sessions will need or want to move to action planning. OST can be used for
‘collegial gatherings where the discussion itself is the final objective’ and has been used to fit
into as short a time span as a fifty-five minute school hour (Owen, 2008:45).
For detail on the actual processes associated with the different stages of an OST event, please
refer to Owen 2008. Details are provided at the end of the paper.
Overview of an experience of using OST principles for a consultation
What follows is based on the experience of applying Open Space Technology (OST)
principles to the facilitation of a consultation process with research participants as part of a
PhD research project examining the identities of Further Education and Training (FET)
practitioners. The group, due to the nature of the consultation, did not engage in any
processes involved in action planning.
The Further Education and Training (FET) sector only became an official sector within the Irish
education system in 2013 and to date there is no published research on FET practitioner identity
from within the Irish context and very little research into the recently established Irish FET
sector. Previous studies on individual distinct parts which now form the overall sector are now
dated or obsolete. So as a beginning point of my PhD research into FET practitioner identities,
I first felt I needed to ask FET practitioners for their own ideas on their identities. In May 2015
I held a half day consultation event in Waterford City with a collection of 15 diverse FET
practitioners to ask the complex question, ‘Who are Further Education and Training
The group consisted of 7 men and 8 women, aged between 25 and 65, with diverse personal
and educational backgrounds, who had experience of diverse FET contexts. The participants’
experience included working: in accredited and non-accredited FET; for statutory, community
and private providers; within formal and informal settings; with diverse learners who
represented all age groups served by the sector (from age 16 upwards) and various educational
and cultural backgrounds. The aim of the event was to capture the views and opinions of those
present, in relation to the specific theme ‘Who are Further Education and Training
practitioners?’ This aim was achieved through the application of OST principles and guidelines
to the consultation event by myself as the facilitator. 3 rooms were used throughout the event,
1 main room and 2 break out rooms.
Creating the agenda
On the afternoon of the May 2015 scoping event, as participants arrived into the main room,
they were given an envelope with a participant information sheet, a consent form to read and
sign, and support contact details should they need support after the event. They sat in a circle
of chairs in the middle of the room. When the majority were present and had signed their
consent forms, the session started with a welcome and introduction from myself as the
facilitator and researcher, an explanation of how the session would run, and an introduction to
Open Space Technology. I explained the 4 principles and 1 law, which were displayed around
the room, and explained how the group would set the agenda by writing any topic they wished
to discuss under the theme/question ‘Who are Further Education and Training practitioners’ on
post-its. The group were supplied with post-its and markers which had been placed on the floor
in the middle of the circle.
Once they had written on their post-its, the participants were invited to stand up, state their topic
for discussion to the group and place their post-it on the community bulletin board (see figure
1), choosing the specific timeslot and location they wished to be used for their theme. Some
participants chose to group their topics together under one discussion slot.
Figure 1: Community bulletin board template used for the May scoping event
Time Slot A
Time Slot B
Time Slot C
4.40 5
A1 (recorder)
Main area
B2 (recorder)
On the first
floor to left of
B1 (recorder)
First floor,
directly above
main area
Discussion groups
Once the agenda and timetable were established, the group broke into 3 smaller discussion
groups, with individual participants free to move from group to group. I rang a bell when it
was time for the discussion groups to change topics and at this point participants would consult
the community bulletin board and decide which room/discussion to attend next. By the end of
the afternoon, 8 discussion groups had taken place.
To end the session, the group were invited back into the main room where I thanked them,
invited feedback on the process and facilitated a closing circle.
Capturing key points
A scribe (non-participant) was present in each of the three discussion rooms. The scribes’ role
was to record in an anonymous manner (no names) the key points of the discussions which took
place. These records were typed up (with no amendments made to the content of the records)
by myself and disseminated to the participants within a week of the event. These records were
then analysed and informed the following stages of the research project.
Findings from the consultation
The appropriateness of the use of OST to consult with FET practitioners, instead of a more
traditionally structured consultation with pre-established questions or areas of focus, was
evident in the contrast between the issues that I had expected to be raised in the consultation
process and the actual issues that were highlighted. I had expected that issues relating to
personal histories, beliefs and values would form the larger part of discussions under the theme
‘Who are Further Education and Training practitioners’, whereas the FET practitioners present
at the consultation event emphasised issues relating to professional identity, professionalisation
and registration, conditions of employment and characteristics of their current working
climates. The over-riding message from the reports was that there was no common
understanding of what constituted a FET practitioner.
There was much data produced from the consultation. OST proved to be an effective tool for
making the best use of time as the group established their own agenda and 8 documented
discussions took place over a half day period. OST also proved to be an effective research
technique, particularly as it strictly limited my influence on the event. The data resulting from
the discussion groups genuinely came from the research participants and was not influenced by
myself as the researcher or as the facilitator.
Potential uses of OST in education settings
OST principles can be used in a multitude of ways within education settings to engage and
consult with students of all ages and with all staff (including non-teaching staff). OST
techniques can be used to facilitate consultations of any type, for action planning and
evaluations. For example, OST could be used in preparation for whole school evaluations,
consultation with parent bodies, for promoting interactive, group and decision making skills
among students.
This paper introduces the idea of Open Space Technology as an effective form of consulting
with diverse groups on complex issues and also shows how it can be used as a research
OST Resources
For additional information on Open Space Technology, refer to Harrison Owens book, Open
Space Technology: A User’s Guide, (3rd Ed.), available to download free from
For additional information on how OST has been used, refer to Tales from Open Space,
available to download free from
Herman, M. (2006) Open Space Technology: An Inviting Guide, 4th Ed. [Internet Resource] (27.2.15)
Kenny, M. (2014) ‘Making Conferences Human Places of Learning’, in Adult Learner: The
Irish Journal of Adult & Community Education. P.86-94.
McDonald, D., Bammer, G. & Deane, P. (2009) Research Integration Using Dialogue
Methods. Australia: ANU E Press.
Owen, H. (2008) Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide, 3rd Ed. California: Berrett-
Koehler Publishers Inc.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Opening Invitation For some years now, I have taught Open Space Technology as the skillful practice of invitation in organization, for the purpose of getting the most important things done, in the easiest possible ways. This is the briefest guide to how to do that. This guide can help you put what is most important for yourself and/or your organization or community into a short statement that invites others to gather. If you do that, then many of those "right" people are very likely to show up at the place and time you designate. Once they gather, with a common passion for the issue(s) you raised, most of the logistics get very simple. People get down to work quickly and naturally, to address the issues at hand, the issues you raised. As their conversations progress, strategic "action" happens. This guide is short. It will get you started. Once you've reviewed it, I'd be glad to discuss it with you. After that, contracting for the facilitation of a meeting or event usually includes (1) preparation time to address the issues identified here, (2) facilitation time for the event itself, and perhaps (3) some training or other follow-up support for keeping the momentum going after the initial event. I'd be glad to discuss such contracting with you, as well. In Open Space, everything starts with the invitation. So here is mine, to you: Have a look at this guide. Think things through. Talk them over. Pencil some notes, maybe even a theme. Scribble a first draft of an invitation, if you can. Make a list of questions. Call me with that list. This guide works equally well with any meeting, retreat, workshop, conference or summit event, regardless of size, people or purpose – with or without Open Space Technology. We've used it for hybrid events, as well, held partially in Open Space, the only difference being that those events don't have as much room for people to work – directly and immediately – on the most important issues.
Making Conferences Human Places of Learning
  • M Kenny
Kenny, M. (2014) 'Making Conferences Human Places of Learning', in Adult Learner: The Irish Journal of Adult & Community Education. P.86-94.
Open Space Technology: A User's Guide, 3 rd Ed. California: Berrett
  • H Owen
Owen, H. (2008) Open Space Technology: A User's Guide, 3 rd Ed. California: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.