January 02, 2013, 11:26 AM — A typical for-profit conference costs $400 a day and takes you to a getaway vacation city like Las Vegas, Orlando or San Francisco. The staff creates the program months in advance; attendees can expect good food, snack breaks twice a day and plenty of PowerPoint presentations.
While that type of conference serves a purpose, those characteristics were not the things that drew me to BarCampGR (Grand Rapids, Mich.), Test Coach Camp (San Jose, Calif.) or Open Agile-Testing Pacific Northwest (Portland, Ore.). Instead, what drew me was the opposite-all three events are open-space conferences.
The History of the Open Conference Model
When Harrison Owen was organizing the third annual symposium on Organization Transformation in 1985, he reviewed the comments from previous events and noticed something odd. No matter how much effort the planners put into the program, people still found the most value in hallway conversations.
Owen wondered if would be possible to build a conference entirely out of hallway conversations. The result was something known today as Open Space Technologies.
Think of Open Space Technologies as a framework that lets a group of people create the event schedule in real time, focusing entirely on what the actual attendees want to hear, share and talk about-the problems they want to solve and the ideas they have to solve them. (In practice, there may be a board with schedules, a unifying thread and some managers on hand to decide who does what when.)
To really understand the open space format, you need to experience it, or at least have it described in practice. I went to the three different open space conferences listed above to capture the story.
BarCampGR: Session Suggestions on a (Virtual) Wall