June 19, 2006

Respecting Open Space

Open space, in the camp conference style, requires some key elements to work well. I'm noticing after watching two different events develop that they may be missing what is important about Open Space.

A couple of months ago, I attended a conference on the east coast. The organizer told me he wanted to do an Open Space day, the day after his event. That day arrived, he bailed, and there were six of us who actually attended. And he insisted that I go, even though I really have a lot of other things to do. The Open Space day was meant to brainstorm ways to organize Net Neutrality support.

After the event, others who attended it suggested that Bar Camp a failure. Well.. I totally disagreed. They thought that somehow, calling an open day "Bar Camp" would make it happen.

They had a wiki with about 22 names on it, and a stellar group of people slated to attend. They had great space, in a lovely lawfirm with wifi, and everything we might need. What they didn't have was a leader to organize the space. Although one person who attended in the middle of the event suggested that if things weren't working, he could vote with his feet. And he would if he wanted to do so. Though considering there were six people in the room, it sounded more like a threat: you don't do what I want to today, or I'll leave. So everyone started doing what he wanted. The point of course of "the law of two feet" is that you don't stay somewhere where you aren't learning. But that applies to Open Space where there are maybe say 100 people, and multiple rooms where you can move and not be disruptive, not six people where you are an integral part of deciding what is happening. But with such a little group, that misapplication of that particular Open Space principle further caused the day to deteriorate as a camp. What little emerging leadership was happening was killed right there, though he wasn't wiling to lead. He just wanted everyone to do things his way.

Without a clear leader, supporting a basic framework for a day of sessions or some kind of plan, just didn't work. It wasn't the concept of Bar Camp that failed. It was a failure of the people proposing it and carrying it out.

Anyway, I'm wondering how Open Space is going to work at the Identity conference at Harvard, where today and tomorrow are regular top down conference days, where the broadcast model is followed. On Wednesday, there will be an Open Space day, led by Kaliya Hamlin and Jon Ramer. (I'm not attending this event, as I have too much work to do, but I'm noticing a trend here....)

I know the Open Space day is happening, more due to the Identity list I'm on, than the event web pages. After there was discussion on the list, I asked about the lack of information supporting the Open Space day on the website, and Paul Trevithick and John Clippinger did add a little information about the day on the session page, to let people know it was even happening. However, I had suggested on the email list that they make a page for the attendees to show that they were attending and add the speakers to the schedule and speaker's page. They did not.

The point I'm making is that I think people who do top down, broadcast style conferences are interested in what's happening with camps and Open Space, but they don't understand the dynamics of them or Open Space sensibility, and so in applying top down controls and information styles to their camps, they potentially harm the good that can come from the camp. And since the leaders of the camp are not traditional speakers, the organizers of the larger top down conference probably think they don't need to list the camp or Open Space leaders as speakers on the larger conference site because the camp facilitators aren't speaking in a traditional way. But this is not true. Listing them is critical to fostering the process of the day.

For example, we know from past successful camps that having a page where attendees say they are coming is key, because the agenda is made the day of the camp. Therefore, people choose to attend because other interesting people will be in the room, not based upon pre-arranged sessions. Secondly, the leaders of the day are key. They have to balance the right amount of support for the Open Space while leading just a little so that attendees make the agenda the morning of, and that things are pulled together at the end of the day. People choose to come, or not, based on who will be leading.

Currently, the leaders of the identity Open Space day are not on Harvard'sthe speaker list, nor does Harvard's the schedule note them, even though speakers the previous two days are listed on the schedule with their corresponding sessions.

I believe the Open Space day will go well due to Kaliya's and Jon's attention, because at least Kaliya has done this before (I don't know about Jon's work with Open Space) and understands well the dynamic needed to make this kind of day work. But the fact that the Open Space day at Harvard's Identity Conference has not been adequately supported with proper information at the event website shows the lack of respect for the dynamics of this kind of event. Since there is no sign up page, they will likely have a vastly diminished attendance compared to the broadcast conference days. A signup page might have actually brought in more people if they'd opened it up to more than just the attendees the first two days. In fact, bringing in new people to understand Identity in technology development is very important and this is a missed opportunity as well.

I do wish them good luck with it, but I wish that the Paul and John, with control of the conference website, understood better why what they have done with both the attendees of the open space day and the leaders may not help the day succeed as well as it should have. They can't blame the camp style for this, but rather themselves. If they day succeeds, it will be in spite of these problems, and due to Jon's and Kaliya's personal networking and leadership for the day.

Posted by Mary Hodder at June 19, 2006 07:06 AM | TrackBack

Hey Mary,

Great points - and you are right, controlling BarCamp organization almost always ends disasterously (we've seen it a couple of times).

Hey...could you refer to the specific BarCamp you are addressing here instead of refering to BarCamp as a whole (as it is not associated with Open Space generally)?



Posted by: Tara 'Miss Rogue' Hunt at June 27, 2006 01:51 AM

Hi Tara, I didn't really want to be too specific about the Bar Camp that people later said failed. I didn't want to pin too much on those folks and here's why:

The Identity Workshop at Harvard was told in advance that what they were doing was causing problems in attendees understanding of the event and their Open Space day generally. These events are very dependant on attendees for success. That is unlike that particular BarCamp that was later said to have "failed", where that organizer had little information about how to make things right ahead of time. The Identity Conference organizers did have that information, and still chose to do things that had the effect of sabotaging the success of an Open Space type of day.

That's why I named the second group. They had fair warning in advance. The first did not.

But both top down conference organizers tried to have some sort of camp, or Open Space day, tacked onto their conferences, and poorly supported them, by imposing top down rules instead of understanding what these other kinds of events require and supporting them well in ways tailored to how these events are different from traditional conferences.

And if people say the days failed, well, my reaction is, you the traditional conference organizer failed to grasp what a Bar Camp is, or what an Open Space is, and it was your lack of support and understanding that caused the failure.

The other issue is, after that particular Bar Camp, people associated with it went around saying BarCamp generally is a failure. And I disagreed with that as well and told them. But again, without proper education and advanced warning, it feels unfair to call them out on it publicly. But I have told them privately that they have completely misunderstood. The failure was not the BarCamp style, but rather that single, ill-supported BarCamp they decided to hold.


Posted by: Mary Hodder at June 27, 2006 07:41 AM