Rococo and Open Space Techology

A few more things about Rococo

Thing one: I’ve caught the bug. I always knew there was something to this wiki biz. The next Recent Changes Camp is in San Francisco, another city I love, so it won’t be any hardship to attend. But that’s a ways away. There’s always Vancouver BarCamp. I wasn’t planning on going, b/c I have my last exam at the end of August, but now I’m rethinking….

Thing two: Open Space Technology. This is the “tool”, method or process by which the conference is organized and run. It was created in the mid-80s by an organizational consultant who realized that people attending his conferences seemed to get more out of networking during the coffee breaks than the formal presentations. Open Space conferences have no keynotes, no predetermined schedules of workshops, panels etc. Rather, participants begin the event by sitting in a large circle and collaborativelyd determining the agenda by stating their needs, specialities and interests. A large, blank agenda is posted on a wall – the “marketplace” and people then post the sessions they’d like to lead or “initiate” in various time slots. This agenda is flexible and fluid, and throughout the weekend, it will change as people add, drop, shift and combine sessions.

At such an “unconference” it is typically understood that all attendees will also be participants – they will lead session, take photos of the sessions and post to Flickr, take notes of sessions and post in the wiki, take video and upload it to to YouTube.

The 8th rule of BarCamp is that everyone will be an interactive participant. This freaked me out when I first attended VanBarCamp last year. I was used to attending conferences as a passive listener, or having been vetted by a search committee that has approved my work, sanctioned it with all the authority of the academy. I wasn’t used to the idea that I could judge the worth of my own work. So I made myself present then, and it was well attended. I actually felt like a bit of a rock star, with all the folks who came up to me after, with their questions, their ideas etc. It was fun. I had similar reservations at Rococo but presented anyway, and it was, of course, well worthwhile (and fun).

Despite its chaotic appearance, Open Space is highly organized and, being self-organized, never breaks down. It relies on a fundamental assumption: that everyone attending the conference is passionate about the topic and are willing to take responsibility around translating and channelling that passion into some tangible realities. Sessions begin immediately, and are held in “breakout spaces”, designated areas or separate rooms. Participants are free to move amongst the discussion groups, following the “Law of Two Feet”. The premise is that if you’re not learning or contributing anything, it’s time to move one.

On of the key things about Open Space Technology is that it enables groups varying sizes to address complex issues and achieve meaningful results quickly. There is a facilitator who guides, supports and responds to the group. Now if you know me at all, you know I shy completely away from all things remotely New Agey – I don’t typically go in for the touchy-feely, circle of trust, talking stick and talisman approach. But our facilitator, Deborah Hartmann, was truly amazing. I think she is one of the main reasons Rococo was such a success. Through her facilitation of the event, I could see how Open Space is a philosophy and practice, as much as an organizing technique.

Her job was to explain the process to all participants and keep things flowing. At any time, however, members of the group can redirect or make suggestions, which the facilitator then incorporates and implements. At the end of the event, there is a convergence, where the full group gathers for a final debriefing – comments and reflection, final thoughts etc. This enables participants to catch up on things they might have missed, make final connections and generally re-engage.

Open Space is evidently an efficient method of self-organizing, but more important, I think, are the underlying principles grounded on collaboration, mutual trust, and non-hierarchical social relations. In this way, Open Space is ideal for discussing wikis. Someone (I forget who – it may have been Mark Dilley) said that Rococo was, indeed, the physical manifestion of a wiki. An offline, f2f, real live wiki. Which is exactly the sort of thing I’m thinking of in my academic work.

The core idea of Open Space – taking responsibility for what you love – was clearly manifest community that made this Recent Changes Camp. It was truly an amazing thing.

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