‘Open Space’ facilitation: An effective participatory technique for stakeholder knowledge exchange and collaboration
This article was submitted as part of our call for articles on participatory approaches in sport for development. For more information and to find out how to submit, read the call for articles.
ATF is a national five-year programme funded by Sport England, managed by The Football Foundation, and delivered by local partners. There are 25 ATF programmes located across England, all of whom work in areas of deprivation to alleviate inequalities in physical activity participation through a place-based approach. Crucially, all 25 programmes have multiple projects running with locally defined social outcomes established through ongoing community engagement. As ATF programmes develop their provision on the basis of the local context, there is no ‘standard’ ATF programme. They share the broad strategic ambition of increasing physical activity to improve health outcomes, but no two ATF programmes are the same. So while there was an opportunity for sharing learning and collaboration across sites, an approach to knowledge exchange that was flexible enough to enable practitioners to contribute meaningfully depending on their specific programmes implementation, challenges, and local objectives was essential.
An introduction to ‘Open Space’
Open Space facilitation (1) is a way to structure conversations between stakeholders and ensure that the issues and topics most important to them are on the agenda. It is a self-organising participatory facilitation technique where participants create the schedule for the day, thereby enabling those with similar experiences or facing similar challenges to coalesce and, where fitting, work collaboratively. Open Space facilitation begins with a clear purpose of the day in order to frame subsequent discussion topics. There is no set time for how long an Open Space event should be, though an event is structured around an initial ‘agenda setting’ exercise followed by Open Space discussion sessions. Unlike conventional facilitated events where a schedule is prepared in advance, at the beginning of Open Space participants individually identify a topic or issue they would like to discuss with others, frame this as a question, and then offer to ‘host’ a discussion on this topic. For example, during our sessions questions posed included ‘how can I improve my community engagement’ and ‘how can I better demonstrate impact’. Hosting is optional, ensuring that those with a genuine interest in the subject are pivotal. The facilitator then invites hosts to share their question with the whole room and briefly explain why they would like to discuss it.
As hosts share this information, the facilitator populates the days agenda (usually on a big screen) with information on what will be hosted, by whom, at what time. This has the effect of letting others in the room self-select which discussion they would like to join. There are multiple hosts within one session, with the option of multiple sessions during the event. Our events have catered for groups of 25 to 100, with multiple sessions over the course of a day. This is a similar format to a conference with parallel sessions whereby participants select the sessions they wish to attend. However, there is a fundamental difference once the Open Space session begins: hosts stay put, but if at any point a participant finds themselves in a discussion where they are neither learning nor contributing, they should move onto another discussion. Participants can therefore operate with a greater degree of autonomy, contributing to and learning from multiple discussions within a single session.
Reflections on the suitability of ‘Open Space’
An Open Space format appears to create the space desired by the LBU and ATF leadership team, with the majority of participants emphasising the value of gaining “insight from other projects to get ideas on what we could do… being able to compare what works and having a sounding board” (Project Manager). This enabled participants to “get a variety of information from lots of sources quickly and easily” (Strategic Manager). It is evident that the opportunity to self-select and move between discussions that are most relevant to individuals and their programmes was particularly well received, with several comments reflecting how the event format remained “specific to our [practitioner] needs and allowed us to talk about the areas that matter to us the most even though all our projects are different” (Project Manager). Participants valued the ability to access a variety of hosted conversations, enabling them to “listen to other peoples’ experiences, what their challenges are and how they dealt with them” (Project Manager). All ATF programmes are at different stages of their development, so the ability to learn from more established provision was particularly well received. For some respondents this “triggered some useful ideas that will definitely shape potential sessions that we look to plan” (project delivery staff). Or to summarise neatly, "the Open Space agenda was a great learning model that got people to look at their challenges and successes, in some cases this then solved problems and shared good practice for future implementation" (Strategic Lead).
The LBU team have found that Open Space provides a potentially empowering, flexible, and easily scalable facilitation technique, well suited to meeting the collaborative learning needs of practitioners who need to operate across organisations, sectors, and community contexts in order to address profound and complex public health challenges. ‘Open Space’ shifts power and control through a participatory process of agenda creation, ensuring that what gets discussed is genuinely relevant to those who are best placed to contribute.
For more information, please contact Dr Dan Bates: [email protected]
1. Owen H. Open Space Technology: A user’s guide. 3rd ed. San Francisco: Berrett- Koehler; 2008.
About the author
Dr Dan Bates is a Senior Lecturer at Leeds Beckett University with a teaching, research, and consultancy focus in Sport for Development.