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Global Dialogue
Earth Community Organization (ECO)
the Global Community

Dr. Holger Nauheimer

for Discussion Roundtables 4, 9, 10, 12, 14, 15, 16, 22, and 24

Table of Contents

OPEN SPACE - A Tool for Effective Stakeholder Consultation

During the last years, private companies as well as public agencies have been realized that consultation of stakeholder groups is an indispensable step for achievement of results and improvement of impacts. Consequently, companies like The Body Shop, IBM, or Shell have developed their own tools to ensure that management decisions can be significantly influenced by customers, shareholders, employees, suppliers, the public opinion and other important groups. The World Bank, through the New Development Framework, will ensure stakeholder participation in identification, planning, implementation and monitoring of its programmes.

A multi-stakeholder process is based on the idea that any organization to be effective in the long run has to make sure that

§ its products and services match the expectations of the clients,
§ the return on investment (or on public spending respectively) satisfies the sponsors,
§ the working conditions motivate the employees,
§ the procurement policy does not suffocate the suppliers, and
§ the overall conduct delights the public opinion.

In the past, it seemed difficult to involve large groups in a participatory manner. For example, the upper limit of participants of a workshop was considered to be around twenty persons. In most cases, this limit was just exceeded by inviting key persons from the involved agencies or departments. In contrast, it was difficult to bring a large and diverse group of people to interact.

Recently, several new tools for large group facilitation have been developed, among them Future Search (by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff) and Open Space Technology (by Harrison Owen).

You can’t beat the elegance and clarity of OPEN SPACE technology. To all stakeholders, it offers the opportunity to work on complex and burning issues. Simple rules support a highly participatory, reflecting and task oriented cooperation for 5 to 500 participants of a meeting, which can go on for one to three days. Each collaborator is empowered to contribute to the success of the workshop with his/her own competency and ideas. The methodology is particularly appropriate for initiating and establishing self-referenced learning and development processes in communities, organizations and companies.

What is the principle?

Any Open Space event is predefined by a question which is to be discussed during a one to three days meeting. The question has to be selected carefully by the management, supported by the facilitator. It should address a burning and conflicting issue and ensure a high diversity of opinions. One day means a good exchange of ideas, two days means a good exchange of ideas and the elaboration of recommendations and three days means a good exchange of ideas, elaboration of recommendations and the priorization of actions.

Such a meeting would have neither a fixed agenda nor invited speakers. Management should be aware that the lay-out of the conference would not allow any status differences ("no ranks, no titles") and should commit themselves to the outcomes of the conference. Within the first two hours of an Open Space event, the participants themselves have set the agenda. Initial resistance or uncertainty disappears, when suddenly more issues have been identified that anybody would have expected beforehand. On average, 30 focus groups are set up in a conference of one hundred participants.

The market place, in which focus groups are negotiated
(Photo: Michael M Pannwitz)
Workshop results are constantly documented and displayed. At the end of the conference, each participants will take the conference proceedings home.

The process is based on a set of four Principles and one Law:

1st Principle: Whoever comes is the right people.

Open Space works with those who are interested and ready to commit themselves.
Only those that are present can contribute. Although the invitation list might be limited, an Open Space conference is principally open for everybody; often, outsiders bring in fresh and independent views that can cause a quantum leap for the process.

2nd principle: Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.

This principle gives the base for sustainable involvement of stakeholders. Those issues for which people have a passion and in which they would engage themselves are discussed, not less, not more. In Open Space, everything that happens has a meaning. In contrast, issues that have been identified before the conference had started might not be considered. Open Space creates transparency and facilitates identification of those areas that bear the highest probability of implementation.

3rd principle: Whenever it starts is the right time.

4th principle: When it's over, it's over. (When it's not over, it's not over.)

These principles describe an obvious and well-known fact: it is not possible to force processes. If people are committed to make a change, they will take the process in their hand. Although time and place are predefined in an Open Space event, clocks play a minor role in setting the pace. Participants themselves decide, how much time is needed to work on an issue – ten minutes, two hours, one day – or not at all.

The Law of the Two Feet

The only law that guides Open Space requires that whenever a participant feels that he/she is neither contributing nor learning, he/she is encouraged to use their capacity to move to a another place of interest. Thus, the Law of Two Feet creates a process of cross-fertilization between the different focus groups.

OPEN SPACE can be applied for:

§ stakeholder consultation,
§ solution finding for corporate uncertainties ,
§ networking of institutions on local, regional and international level,
§ creating synergy and growth among representatives of different pressure groups,
§ mergers of companies,
§ creativity, research and development,
§ solving technical problems,
§ vision sharing,
§ opening event for projects and programmes or for change processes in larger organizations,
§ community planning,
§ and others.
OPEN SPACE was successfully applied by AT&T, BBC, Mercedes Benz AG, Pepsi Cola, Boeing, Peace Corps and the World Bank.

Debited to its simplicity and the sensual aspects of comprehension that will be offered by an experienced facilitator, OPEN SPACE can be employed for all cultures, educational levels and age groups – even for children. Therefore it is also applied in schools and educational programmes.


One preparatory meeting of a core steering group, together with the facilitator on which the people to be invited are selected, one to two months prior to event. Invitation list to be kept open. The more, the better!


1 facilitator, total man-days, including preparations: 12
Travel costs (two journeys)
One large seminar room, size depending on no. of participants
Catering: depending on participants and duration
Training and visualization material
2 to 3 computers stand-by, one laser printer
Photocopy facilities, no. of photocopies per participant approximately equals the no. of participants; binding facilities

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