The Advantages of Hosting an Open Space Event for Your Members & Industry

A fascinating conversation about the Open Space event format took place recently in the ASAE Collaborate forum. Patrick Jones, executive director and CEO of the International Bridge Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA), started the discussion after his association successfully used the Open Space format for two events. This topic deserves a larger audience beyond the ASAE members-only community, which is why we’re talking about it today.

Open Space event basics

At an Open Space event, attendees create an agenda that focuses on the issues and problems most important to them. Patrick talked about the purpose of the format:

“Open Space begins with the premise that one of the most effective ways to cultivate engagement and deep dives into the most important issues confronting a community of people is NOT to control the people but instead to give them the freedom to talk about the things they are most interested in and passionate about.”

An Open Space event begins with a facilitator explaining the concept to attendees. Then, attendees are invited to individually announce, post, and schedule a topic or topics in the “marketplace”—a central hub on-site or in the virtual meeting space.

Groups self-organize to discuss the topics at the scheduled times. Each group takes notes for the proceedings, which are shared later so everyone can read what other groups talked about.

Open Space’s guiding principles and rules

Since its invention in the 1980s, Open Space events follow these four principles: 

•    Whoever comes are the right people
•    Whenever it starts is the right time
•    When it’s over, it’s over
•    Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened

No constrictive rules or expectations. Open Space discussions are of the moment and involve the people who want to be in the room. 

Open Space discussions also follow the “law of mobility” or “law of two feet.” People can go wherever they please whenever they want. They can move from group to group to discuss the issues most important to them. 

However, participants must understand this one important guideline: whoever posts a topic should have a passion for it because they will take personal responsibility for the discussion.

The experience of three associations with the Open Space format 

IBTTA’s first experiment with Open Space was a 90-minute session with 20 CEO members. Seven groups, ranging in size from two to ten people, held discussions. The CEOs loved the experience, so IBTTA decided to use the concept again at a larger meeting.

They scheduled a three-hour Open Space event as the opening session at a two-day workshop with 200+ attendees. The workshop’s purpose was to address the current challenges keeping maintenance, engineering, and roadway operations professionals up at night—a perfect match for the Open Space concept.

Patrick said the Open Space session “succeeded beyond my wildest expectations.” In this informative video, he explains the Open Space format. You’ll also hear participants raving about productive conversations that solved real-world problems. Patrick said, “In the short term, I believe open space won't replace the traditional meeting format at IBTTA but it will definitely be a regular feature of our future conferences.”

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) held a virtual Open Space event in June that attracted 140 people from six continents. The online event consisted of five 3.5-hour blocks over two days. Each block started with an informal 45-minute keynote followed by Open Space sessions. These keynotes were intended to spark Open Space topic ideas. Several Open Space groups discussed keynote-related topics, but others went in different directions.

Daita Serghi, senior education manager at AASHE, said they plan to repeat the event next June and add another Open Space event in January for a different segment of their community.

In the same Collaborate thread, Wendy Hymes, director of membership and conferences at VisionServe Alliance, talked of the positive feedback from 170 attendees who participated in Open Space sessions at their annual conference in 2019. The Alliance plans to include 1.5 days of Open Space sessions in their 2024 conference next spring.

To learn more about applying Open Space at your organization, follow the work of these association consultants who facilitate Open Space meetings: 

•    Lee Gimpel at Better Meetings 
•    Adrian Segar at Conferences That Work 
•    Sandra Nam and Lucas Cioffi at QiqoChat 

IBTTA also provides resources for Open Space meetings on their website.

several participants sitting around a table at an Open Space event

Advantages of using the Open Space format

Attendees set the agenda. With Open Space, content is not planned in advance and not predetermined by others. Attendees have the freedom to contribute and explore content that’s of interest to them in that moment—the topics of most urgency and importance. At traditional conferences, there’s no space for these conversations. In fact, attendees usually can’t find other people who want to talk about them.

Open Space events are more engaging. At a traditional conference, attendees are lectured at for an hour by a speaker or panel. Most people in the room are left out of the discussion. At an Open Space event, people in the room are the center of the discussion. They can ask tough questions, think out loud, and exchange stories with people who share their interests and concerns, and who have similar or differing viewpoints. Open Space puts the beloved hallway conversations at the center of the program.

Open Space provides a better learning experience, per science. In Collaborate, Jack Coursen, senior director of professional development at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, described how the Open Space concept aligns with the “best hits” of learning science

•    Motivation
•    Content built off existing knowledge
•    Super contextually relevant content
•    Repetition and interleaving of information
•    Specific feedback
•    Incentives and supports for practice and application through and from peers

He suggested that associations ensure learning transfer also takes place. Ideally, people apply what they learn from discussions. A series of online follow-up sessions can keep the learning (and doing) momentum going.

Open Space is more inclusive. Instead of relying on the “sage on the stage,” anyone can contribute their ideas, which can unleash a diversity of perspectives and the flourishing of collective intelligence. 

Industry partners can share their expertise. The Open Space format also offers sponsorship opportunities. Encourage industry partners to lead discussions on relevant topics that highlight their interests and ideas. 

Open Space requires less work from staff—as long as you’re willing to cede control. Just think, no call for proposals and abstracts, no session and speaker selection, and no schedule and speaker management. Instead, you can allocate that time and money to marketing and managing the Open Space event and other programs.

The best thing about Open Space is its impact on attendees. They can make new professional connections and deepen relationships, build a feeling of community, solve problems, and get inspired and recharged. They can discuss what’s on their minds with others, not just the people they already know, but people they don’t know who have dealt with or are dealing with the same situation. Open Space allows them to go beyond typical conference small talk and have conversations that matter.

Daita said conferences serve two goals for attendees: knowledge-sharing and relationship-building. She believes conference organizers need to look beyond the typical event design. Think deeply about what brings people to your conference and what’s usually missing from your conference. She said, “Open Space is a solution to many problems that attendees face at in-person meetings and virtual events too.”

Next week, we’ll look at some challenges you may encounter with the Open Space format—and solutions too. 

conference education
program development
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