Open Space as a Method of Knowledge Transfer1
By Reinhard Leiter and Einhard Schrader
translated by Steven Anderson
Knowledge Transfer – a Model without Worth?
Over the course of the last century, the term “Wisdom” has become increasingly trivialized.
In the “Old Times,” Wisdom was the most respected form of knowledge, based on an
understanding of earthly and universal entities, which form the very foundation of human
existence. “Wise men“ were the most respected individuals among mankind. The powerful
bowed before them, for they derived their authority not from physical strength, nor from the
successful exertion of violence or from the attainment of impressive economic results.
Rather, their knowledge infused everyday life with the supernatural forces, which appeared
to influence human existence more than the work of man.
Today, this form of knowledge is shelved away in the Philosophy and Theology sections of
academic libraries. In our civilization, very few have access to this type of knowledge or are
even interested in finding it. Today, knowledge is an arbitrary collection of arbitrary
information, which is like a nail fetched from a box to hang a picture on the wall. Before the
picture is successfully mounted, most of the nails are bent and thrown away. And when the
picture itself becomes worn out, the intact nail is pulled out and thrown away as well. We
have too much – far too much – knowledge, that is heedlessly destroyed. And new
knowledge is being created every day.
One of the most distinguishing features that differentiates the Old from the New Economy is
the fact that the latter’s products can be arbitrarily multiplied2. Internet technology allows – or
will allow – immaterial products, or information, to multiply and expand at nearly no cost.
And the special charm of these products lies in their ability to be simultaneously given away
and retained. It would seem that an old dream of mankind has been fulfilled: “To have the
cake and eat it, too.”
The unbounded and complex development of information is both fascinating and frightening.
This plethora overwhelms us like a child at Christmas, who wants to hold and try out all his
new toys at the same time. Scarcely has he picked up one toy, when he reaches for the next
and spots a third, for which he has no remaining hand. In such situations, children panic.
Adults do, too; however, whereas children simply begin to cry in frustration when they have
too few hands, adults create more and more databases and directories so as not to miss a
thing. All of this information, which we have long ago given up on trying to grasp with our
intellects, instead fills up servers and hard drives without end.
Because we lack the old sense of Wisdom, we believe that the attainment of knowledge is
merely a technical problem. When we simply optimize our search engines, correctly
organize our masses of data, and carry our laptops along with us, then we “have” knowledge
and hold the world in our grasps. We no longer sense our breathlessness, nor do we trust
the fear that besets our thoughts, it might evade us, we might miss the one bit of knowledge
that decides the difference between the winners and losers in the global competition for
knowledge and power.
A large portion of the information, which we diligently collect like hamsters, is outright
worthless, not because it is worthless in itself, but rather because it is worthless to us. A
piece of information derives its worth principally from the meaning which we ascribe to it.
The Help-file to a word-processing program might waste away on the hard drive for weeks or
months. However, as soon as I am not able to perform a certain function of the program, the
information in the Help-file proves its worth. And when the information is not useful because
I do not understand it, then, frustrated as I am, the entire Help-file is worthless. I find out
whether or not it also contains good, understandable information when I have a new
problem, click on the Help-button – if I have not already given up – and search again for an
Therefore, the meaning of a piece of information depends on the question that I ask. If I
have no question, then all information is worthless. When I already know how I want to begin
my evening, the city guide on the internet is useless. Nevertheless, we persistently collect
dead information (for example, bookmarks), because there is always the chance...
So, what does a crafty civilization do when the demand for information (questions) is lacking?
It creates demand. Thus, an “Economy of Attention3” develops, the goal of which is to create
questions where there are none at all: flashing banners on websites and advertisements
delivered through every channel. Nevertheless, seminars about knowledge transfer make it
clear to us that we still do not have enough of what we already possess in abundance.
Anyone can capture this attention, if he, as in the case of increasingly common virus hoaxes,
threatens those who ignore information with catastrophe.
In this way, uncertainty grows. Which information can I trust? Which questions and
problems are also mine? Which needle in the haystack of information is important to me?
The answer to this question is very conventional: the reliability of information does not
depend on the information itself but rather on the trust that we have in the people who
brought our attention to the information. The propagation of the I-Love-You-Virus as well as
virus hoaxes, which, as a rule, are received from people whom we know, demonstrates that
this trust can also be misused.
Thus, in order to trust information or questions which cross our paths, we need not only to
trust the people from which it comes but also to ascertain that they are competent in the
transmission of such information. We must, therefore, know the people.
The Market as a Place of Transfer
As of late, one must always follow an important rule of thumb: buy meat only where you
know the butcher, who in turn has sufficiently assured you that he knows the slaughterhouse
in which the animal was slaughtered, which also monitors what is in the feed which is given
to the animals. In fact however, in only a few cases can we follow the chain of transactions
all the way back to the source with first-hand knowledge. All the same, we are forced to be
satisfied having confidence in just the first apparent member of the chain. Everything else is
a matter of trust.
How does this trust develop? There are two components: Ideally, we know the individual
personally and have good experience with them. The market for goods has always operated
in this way: The Venetian aristocracy entrusted Marco Polo with the search for Safran, even
though he had never before been in China, because he was one of their own and they had
had good experience with him.
A market for goods works when demands of individuals are met with offers made by other
individuals. If the customer already knows what he would like to buy, then it is enough that
he trusts that the vendor will deliver the product in reasonable condition at a reasonable
price. The customer can also consider buying something unknown. Then, the trust in the
vendor must be even greater so as to counterbalance his inexperience with the product. The
customer will accept the risk of something new if the vendor convinces him or her of the
additional utility and quality of the unknown product and if the price is right.
A market of information operates in the same way: On one hand, we trust information which
we can verify ourselves. However, in this way, we receive mostly information that we, in
principle, already have, rather than anything fundamentally new. To find something truly new
we must, therefore, open ourselves up to the unknown and the unsure, which we do, above
all, when we trust the source of the information. Building this trust is an exceedingly complex
One of the forms in which such vital face-to-face exchange takes place is called “Open
Space.” It is, to be sure, the most open form of a physical, as opposed to virtual, information
market in existence. It presents a status-free room, in which individuals offering information,
questions, and experience can meet with those seeking such information. As in a weekly
market, a market leader guarantees the freedom of exchange. The layout of the market
corresponds with the timetable in such a way that it allows the participants to meet at the
right times in the right places and then to leave again when the exchanges are over.
The open format and direct communication make it possible not only to break open new
pieces of information in a short amount of time but also for the participants to understand the
meaning of the information. Because this is expressed much more non-verbally than
verbally, it is deemed to be more reliable than even the most polished written outpourings
(like this text, for example). This ability to understand meaning creates the trust – or a
justified lack thereof – in the information. This is one of the reasons why most participants in
an Open Space event find not only an unexpectedly rich source of information but also a
place where they actually improve their quality of life.
The Setting of Open Space
“Open Space” was developed by Harrison Owen in the 1970s4. He drew upon experiences,
which he had had in Africa: the members of a community would meet in the middle of their
village, and everyone, independent of their rank, would have the same right to speak his or
her mind, to sing, to dance, or to drum. For this reason, the circle possessed great symbolic
as well as practical meaning. There were no more important or less important places. The
interior allowed everyone who entered to gain attention and to be seen and heard equally. At
the same time, the interior was a protected space. All participants collectively guaranteed
the security which was found within the circle.
Consequently, Open Space also begins in a circle, no matter how large the number of
participants, which can range from 30 to 1,000. The leader of the Open Space begins the
event with an explanation of the four principles and a single law, engendering the spirit of
The four principles are:
Whoever comes is the right person
Whatever happens is the only thing that should have
Whenever it starts is the right time
When it’s over, it’s over
With these four principles, the market is grounded in the here and now. Everything that can
happen, can only happen here, at this time, with these people. This allows for no, “What
would have been if...” or “We should have....” It is pure reality in a world, which is
submerging deeper and deeper into a virtual space.
In addition to the four principles, is the single law:
The Law of the Two Feet
It declares that everyone has the right to go wherever his feet take him. Whether someone
gives or receives information, is engaged or is bored, learns something or nothing at all – the
responsibility belongs to each person individually. No one can take it away. This principle of
absolute self-responsibility for what one gives or receives, believes or mistrusts, and trusts or
scrutinizes creates an atmosphere of dependability and a measure of freedom, which is
protected from misuse.
Several types of participants are created through the implementation of this law. Next to
those, who visit each thematic group in succession, are the “bumblebees” and the
“butterflies.” The bumblebees are those who hurry from one group to the next, taking
something here, giving it there and thereby “pollinating” the groups. The butterflies are those
who at first visit none of the groups, but rather sit by the swimming pool, at the bar, or simply
in the sun. On the surface, they appear to be making no contribution, but nonetheless they
create an atmosphere of spontaneity or haphazardness which often brings forth the most out
of the ordinary information.
After this agreement, the Open Space begins. At the start, everyone who would like to
discuss something – be it, that they have information to share, are seeking information, or a
little of both – writes his or her topic on a large piece of paper, introduces it to the group, and
decides upon a timeframe. A chart is then created, across which the available times (usually
one-and-a-half hours per topic) and available rooms for each day are listed. The available
days are then listed vertically to create an overview of the entire forum schedule. A post-it-
note is hung in each field. The initiator picks off the note and sticks it on his “topic card,”
which he then hangs on an empty table.
Once the stream of initiators has run dry, the other participants look for topics on the table,
which they are interested in visiting. Once the first topic round begins, the Open Space is off
and running, never to stop. The participants stream from group to group, switching between
being bumblebees or sitting off to the side, enjoying whatever there is to enjoy.
When desired, the initiators and/or participants compose short summaries, which are hung
up or distributed to inform the other participants what was discussed and arranged.
Every evening and morning all the participants come together for a half-hour to exchange
sentiments, announcements, the good and bad, whatever “is up.”
The somewhat longer closing assembly, during which anyone can say anything, almost
always demonstrates that not only the head, but also the heart and gut, have been filled with
information, which, because it has been given and received holistically, is more enriching
than a lecture, more practical than an endless presentation of slides, and more important
than the evening news.
IHK-Academy in Munich, Westerham: Exchange and Renewal
The chamber of Industry and Commerce for Oberbayern holds an annual Open Space
conference at the end every year. The target groups are freelance and company employed
Organization and Personnel Developers from the German-speaking region as well as anyone
simply interested in the topic or in Open Space. Both authors of this article are among the
The Open Space has a different motto every year, for example: “To Burn or to Burn Out,” “All
You Need is Love,” or “Just in Time.” The motto is meant to be an inspiration, not a
limitation. Every participant can speak to the topics, pose questions, or share information
that is important to him or her. Occasionally the Open Space is begun with by an
introductory lecture, which illuminates the topic more exactly.
Many participants use this yearly Open Space to look back on the preceding year and to get
inspiration for the coming year. Thus, problem-oriented topics exist alongside the exchange
of experience or the introduction of new approaches or methods in the field. Political and
scientific topics as well as esoteric discussions are included along with dance, art, and
music. Everything present at the market is on offer, and some participants discover for the
first time at the Open Space valuable information that they themselves have to offer.
The mixture of verbal and non-verbal offerings is particularly characteristic of this Open
Space, thus fulfilling the desire of many participants to be enriched not only in the head, but
also in the heart and gut.
This applies not only in the obvious sense. The IHK-Academy, which sponsors this Open
Space, also puts particular importance on the surroundings: beverages, which are always
available; fruit and fresh-squeezed fruit juices, delicious and inexpensive; numerous rooms in
which to work and corners where one can relax alone or chat with others; sport and exercise
facilities available in house as well as in the surrounding area. Along with these is the
friendly atmosphere which emanates from people who are visibly enjoying the event.
It is the “whole picture” that has made this Open Space so successful.
IT: Revitalization of Cooperation
Fifty top and middle executives within the IT branch of an international corporation came
together for two days, their minds full with topics, which they could finally discuss with their
colleagues, but also full with irritation, because they were left in a stitch by another
department or because hidden misunderstandings or open struggles for power had been
The organizing CEO is a smart man, and therefore his goal, above all else, was to bring the
executives into communication with one another again. However, communication needs
substance, and thus Open Space was the appropriate method to bring substance and
contact together. An Austrian proverb also applied here, “Reden bringt die Leut’ z’ammen”
(Talking brings the people together).
Within a half-hour, the stirring topics were written on the topic cards and the times and rooms
were organized. The mixture of participants, formed into groups purely by their interest in a
particular theme, helped to avoid confrontation and placing of blame. Instead, important
information was exchanged and collective solutions were developed. Much, which had
remained unsolved for two years, was brought back to the table, new forms of teamwork and
decision-making developed and blockades torn down.
During this Open Space, 25 individual topics groups met. After every session, nearly every
group produced a short handout, which informed the others about the course of their
discussion. In the closing assembly, every group presented a 60-second summary. Those,
who had taken on the responsibility for the suggested solutions, stepped into the circle and
made it clear that they would follow through. More than half of the problems were solved by
the end of the next quarter.
OT: Spirit Building
Harrison Owen developed not only Open Space. He is also responsible for the concept of
“Organizational Change (OT),” for which Open Space is the appropriate method. He also
founded a yearly Open Space forum for any professionals who have something to do with
organizational change. The majority of participants come from the USA, but Europe, Asia,
Latin America, and Australia are also represented.
The diverse international origins of the participants account for the particular vitality of this
Open Space. Suddenly it becomes clear that the European-American, “white” understanding
of organizations is very limited. The spiritual as well as practical experience from other
cultures and ethnic groups puts the predominant view into perspective. The diversity of
offered information, methods, and experience is so vast, that no one wants to get involved or
identify with everything. The message of “The Law of Two Feet” has special meaning here:
Do not get involved in arguments, but rather respect the other perspective and change
The value of this Open Space is not only the new information but also the spirit of diversity
and mutual respect, which develops over the course of the forum. Open Space is not simply
the 370th method for large events but rather a universal concept for the generation and
exchange of information.
Thus, the old sense of “Wisdom” can exist again.
This paper was published in Pawlowski/Reinhard, Wissensmanagement fuer die Praxis, Neuwied 2002, pp. 127 – 136
Ulrich Klotz, Die Herausforderungen der Neuen Oekonomie. Gewerkschaftliche Monatshefte Nr. 10/1999
3 Georg Franck, Oekonomie der Aufmerksamkeit, 1998
4 Harrison Owen, Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide, 21997