Open Space forum participants sharing their insights
A different way to meet
Think about the last big meeting you attended. It was probably structured with a pre-made agenda that you may or may not have seen in advance. You probably sat in a big room with a meeting facilitator. Did you cover topics in the order of the agenda? Were there things that came up that were captured on a “parking lot” to be discussed later? Did you get what you needed from the meeting? Perhaps there were some things that you would have liked to discuss, but you didn’t want to derail the group from the agenda topics.

Now consider what happens when the purpose of the meeting is to address highly complex, challenging issues. Perhaps there isn’t a clearly defined expectation for the outcome(s) of the meeting because it is largely driven by the input of those participating. What if you know the high-level topics, but would welcome a more flexible format that gives the group control over what is discussed and next steps?

Enter Open Space Technology. “Open Space is an approach used to bring people together to deal with complex and potentially conflicting material in innovative and productive ways. It is particularly powerful when nobody knows the answer, and the ongoing participation of a number of people is required to deal with the questions.”* I first encountered this approach last year, and immediately wanted to test drive it in my own work.

Participants in Open Space Technology have an experience that is much different from a typical meeting. The name is a bit misleading, since technology is optional in an Open Space event. In this format, the room is set up in a circle of chairs with no tables, and all participants have equal opportunity to be heard. Using nothing more than some Post-it notes and flip chart paper, the group builds a joint agenda for the day— raising topics, negotiating how those topics might be combined, and choosing the locations in which discussions will be held.

Each individual is empowered to use the time and space in the way necessary to discuss a topic and determine post-event action items. These discussions are captured very simply on a piece of paper (session report) as a source of reference and a compilation of next steps.

An open space for public health leaders

We recently used the Open Space approach to kick-off one of our projects: Public Health Informatics for Leaders. This three-year initiative has been jointly funded by the deBeaumont Foundation and the CDC to identify and support the informatics training needs for the executive leadership level of public health. Public health leadership is a frequently overlooked audience when it comes to workforce development. PHII has identified potential training and development opportunities for public health leaders that, through this project, we seek to validate— as well as identify any previously overlooked needs.

With the variety of challenges that senior leaders of STLT health departments face today, we felt that this was the perfect opportunity to hold an Open Space event. We met with a cohort of public health leaders around the theme of using information as a strategic asset to promote action. This was our chance to hear first-hand what the most critical informatics challenges are for these leaders today, in their own words. Throughout the event, we were able to determine how we could help connect them to the support they need – whether it be case studies, resources, specific training, or simply connection with their peers.

From the very beginning of the event, energy was high and the meeting got off to a good start. From the 10+ agencies and organizations represented, participants built an agenda of sessions for more than what could be covered in one day, all in about 30 minutes. Many topics even carried-over into post-event discussions at dinner. As a result, 11 reports were generated and captured in a virtual forum for further discussion and action on areas such as “Informatics Roadmaps,” and, “What’s in it for me? The Use Case for Health Care Systems to Participate in Enhanced Surveillance.”

As a debrief to these rich discussions, a graphic facilitator captured, “what came alive” on day 1 as well as what they could build on.

Participants also worked on agency planning. This included capturing specific next steps to help work toward key results, all with an overarching vision.

When does Open Space Technology help?


  • -A real issue needs solutions or discussion.
  • -Issues are highly complex.
  • -There is a great deal of diversity in terms of people and points of view.
  • -Real passion is present (people care!)–and probably also conflict.
  • -A decision needs to be made yesterday (there is genuine urgency). 

What’s next?

Now that we have a better understanding of what is most important to our senior leaders when it comes to building informatics capacity within their agencies, we can truly tailor offerings, such as training and resources. We made an online forum available so that senior leaders can reach out to each other as needed for support (with PHII as the moderator/ connector). We are also planning several virtual sharing sessions as a follow-up to the most popular discussions.

Next year, we plan to repeat the in-person Open Space forum in an “overlap” format. This means that we will invite half of this year’s participants back, while the other half of participants invited will be new to the event. Our goal is to continue to build and support this community with a focus on relationships, training and development opportunities, and relevant informatics resources.

*Harrison Owen, Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide, 3rd edition (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2008).

Open Space Technology runs on two fundamentals: passion and responsibility.