Learning For Free

 Harrison Owen

April 17, 1998


Ever since the publication of Peter Senge's "The Fifth Discipline(1)," organizational learning has become a virtual fad. And not without reason. The super-heated pace of our world makes yesterday's ways of doing business obsolete just about as quickly as the days themselves pass by. Here today and gone tomorrow. Under such circumstances, keeping up, which is the essence of learning, is nothing less than essential.

The range of activities currently practiced under the heading of organizational learning is almost mind boggling. From simple training programs to vast corporate universities, the quest goes on. Millions of Dollars, Marks, Yen, and Krona (to say noting of other currencies), are spent with abandon, all with the avowed intent of making us smarter, and thereby more competitive. But, at the end of the day, has it really been worth all the effort, to say nothing of the expense? Could it be that we were working much too hard, and was there in fact a much simpler way?


Ilya Prigogene(2) taught us a number of years ago about the magic of self-organizing systems. His work in chemistry, for which he earned the coveted Noble Prize, was instrumental in opening the doorway to a different way of thinking about the life of natural systems. Until Prigogene the conventional wisdom held that systems, once created, stayed pretty much the same until they ran out of gas (the second law of thermodynamics), at which point they pooped out, and disappeared. Prigogene understood that systems could poop, but there was another possibility. The system could, according to Prigogene, re-constitute at a higher level of complexity, and keep on going. New, improved, and better able to deal with a changed environment, these systems just seemed to pop into a new way of being. Most remarkable, all of this apparently took place without benefit of human intervention. The system went from poop to pop. All by itself.

Between "poop" and "pop" there was a now familiar creature: Chaos. According to Prigogene, systems of all sorts went on a journey which began in order, passed through chaos, then if the system was fortunate, ended in new order, indeed a vastly improved new order.

The efforts of Prigogene laid the ground work for a major undertaking which now travels under the name of Chaos and Complexity Theory. Chronicled by the likes of Joseph Gleich(3) and Mitchell Waldrop(4) it now appears that Prigogene stumbled upon a gold mine of ideas, with many new ones appearing almost daily. Among the better ones, in my view, are ideas concerning complex adaptive systems, the code words used to denominate self-organizing systems by a creative group of scientists doing their work in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Known as the Santa Fe Institute, the assembled scientists include Murray Gel-Man, a physicist who gave us the quark, fellow physicists from Los Alamos, and a theoretical biologist by the name of Stuart Kaufman, amongst others.

Kaufman(5) set himself the considerable task of determining the means whereby we (and all living creatures) progressed from primordial molecular stew to you -- me and all the rest. Through extensive computer modeling, real life laboratory work, and a combination of both, Kaufman came to the conclusion that given a few very simple pre-conditions, systems will self-organize.

Kaufman's preconditions, which probably are not unique to him, include the following: a) A relatively safe environment. b) High levels of diversity in terms of the elements to be found in that environment. c) Great potential complexity in terms of the possible inter-relationships of the elements present. d) A drive (urge) towards improvement, usually manifest as the necessity of finding a better fit with the environment. e) A sparsity of prior connections (the elements are not "hard wired" together). f) The whole mess is on the edge of chaos. Given these pre-conditions, self-organization is a natural consequent.

Kaufman's terms for the resultant self-organized system are "Complex Adaptive System." It is complex in that the elements present are multiple and inter-related in a complex fashion. It is adaptive in that the system can continue to evolve in positive ways relative to the environment in which it is found. Of course, the system can also cease it evolutionary ways, in which case it must hope for an unchanging environment, or failing that a decent funeral.

The key word for our purposes is "adaptive," because hidden within this apparently neutral term is the whole process of learning. The notion here is that the system, in its constant search for "fitness" with its environment actually learns how to be in a better way. Better is, of course, a relative term, relative to the existing environment. Change the environment and the better way of being may not be so good after all. And the learning involved is of a rather simple order which does not imply conscious intent. After all ascribing consciousness to molecular stew is rather a stretch. but it is learning none-the-less, albeit not consciousness learning.

The implications of Kaufman's work are profound. Not only does organization occur as a natural act, but learning as well. Through out Kaufman's work, there is a phrase which appears with mantra-like regularity: Order for Free. Order (organization) is not (in the first instance) the product of hard work on the part of external agents, but rather the expected consequence of a natural system life's progress. By the same token, learning is not something forced upon a system from the outside, but rather the natural expression of the life process. Learning is for Free!

If you will grant for the sake of the argument that Kaufman's work is sound, and in fact there are more than a few people who are not too sure, we are still left with the considerable jump from self-organization/learning in molecular stew into the current fascination with organizational learning as it may appear in corporations and other human institutions. Could it be that learning is for free in the human environment as well?


Thirteen years ago an approach to meeting management emerged, not so much as a product of intentional design, but rather as an outgrowth of frustration and at some level, laziness. It is called Open Space Technology(6). The frustration appeared as a result of my having spent an entire year organizing an international gathering for 250 people, only to discover that the best part, as judged by all participants and myself, were the coffee breaks. It was the coffee breaks where the real, juicy stuff happened. All the rest (featured speakers, panel discussions, and the like) seemed almost like an interruption to the core activity. It is pretty hard to take when you are forced to recognize that one year's hard work basically yielded a continuing sequence of interruptions to the main activity. There had to be a better (and simpler) way.

Inspiration for Open Space came from a small village in West Africa called Balmah where I was privileged to be a guest of the Chief for a period of time. I noticed that everything of importance happened in a circle. The elders met in a circle, the village danced in a circle. The men held council in a circle, and the women gathered for their tasks and conversations in a circle as well. It seemed that there was some magic in a circle. My thought at the time was that if we were to invite participants to a meeting to sit in a circle, add some simple mechanism to surface topics of interest (a bulletin board would do) and provide an equally simple mechanism to determine the time and place of meeting in order to deal with the issues raised (a market place), it is entirely possible that the magic of the Balmah circle could be shared with a much broader audience.

In the intervening years, I believe my hunch has proven correct. To date thousands of groups ranging in size from 5 to over 1000, have gathered on virtually every continent around an almost unimaginable diversity of topics. They all begin in a circle, and each group discovers what the people of Balmah have known for ever. There is power in the circle to the point that within a very short time (typically 15 minutes) the group is enabled to move from chaotic disparity to focused and productive activity. Advance work on the agenda and structure of meeting is zero, and facilitation is minimal to non-existent. Truly a simpler way.

It is fair to ask how can it work. Most people know as a matter of training and experience, that complex gatherings involving potentially a large number of people take an extraordinary amount of time to prepare, and require the constant attention, to say nothing of intervention, of skilled facilitators. The Open Space experience is markedly different. Given adequate space, the presence of people who care about the issue involved, and the brief services of a facilitator at the very beginning, the group is typically well on its way to productive dialogue and practical solutions. It almost seems like magic.

I do not think it is magic, unless there is magic in the process of self organization. Stated baldly, I believe that precisely the same mechanisms are operative in Open Space as Stuart Kaufman describes in the confection of molecular stew. Offering proof positive on the point would take us well beyond the scope and size of this paper, if indeed such proof were possible. There is no need, however, to prove that Open Space "works" as advertized, for that is the repeated and repeatable experience of thousands of people around the planet. The issue is to provide some likely explanation of how and why.

You will remember the essential pre-conditions for self organization provided by Kaufman and outlined above. If you compare those pre-conditions with the conditions I have described for a number of years under which Open Space is both appropriate and workable (listed below), I think you will see the connection. When asked when to use Open Space, my reply has been -- Use Open Space in any situation characterized by high levels of complexity in terms of the issues to be resolved, high levels of diversity in terms of the people involved, high levels of potential or actual conflict (edge of chaos), and where the decision time was yesterday. Never use Open Space when the issues and their resolution are already known, i.e. when the connection of issues and people are firmly established, which means of course that the sparsity of connections between elements is not in operation.

Just for the record, it should be said that my admonitions came by way of experience. It was only well after the fact that I encountered Kaufman's work and experienced a satisfying A-Ha... I think we are talking about the same thing. Is this proof? Probably not, but it is certainly suggestive. At the very least it is true is that participants in Open Space know at the level of experiential encounter that order is for free. At least the order they manifest in their work appears without prior consultation or intentional design. It just happens. If this is not self-organization, and therefore "order for free," it is clearly the next best thing. Can we say the same for learning?


In a typical Open Space gathering there are no featured speakers, pre-determined teachers, or experts of the generally acknowledged sort. All participants are simultaneously teachers and learners each to the others, all of which sounds like a certain prescription for ignorance confounded. The actual results are quite different.

Every Open Space gathering of which I have been a part, or even heard about, possessed the following characteristics: High Learning, High Play, Appropriate Structure and Control, and Genuine Community.

High Learning: Thomas Kuhn(7) makes the distinction between High Science and Normal Science. The former constitutes those moments in scientific inquiry when paradigms are busted and breakthroughs occur. Such moments are inevitably messy and to some degree uncomfortable for old established insights are set aside and something new takes their place. Normal Science is what happens afterwards when the mess is cleaned up and the implications of the new understandings are worked out.

Something similar happens in Open Space, but I choose to call it High Learning (Normal Learning) because the subject matter may not be scientific in nature, but rather better ways to run a business, conduct a sales campaign, or rebuild a community. Because of the openness of the environment and diversity of participants, points of view and professional backgrounds are juxtaposed in previously unknown ways. There is no small amount of confusion (chaos), but out of this come new ideas and insights. It can be a very heady experience in all senses of the word "heady."

A second characteristic of life in Open Space is High Play. For many people play is considered to be a trivial activity largely reserved for children. More recently the value of play has been upgraded, and this is definitely the case in Open Space. Open Space participants will often describe their experience as fun, but this fun is not reserved for recreational periods, but rather is characteristic of the overall undertaking. People actually have fun dealing with very serious subjects.

The connection between High learning and High Play is more that coincidental. Indeed it appears that High Learning requires High Play to become fully operational. Precisely because new insights are held (initially) in a playful way ideas may be shaped, grown or even discarded in rapid order. People do not get "stuck" on one (usually their own) position to the exclusion of all others.

The third characteristic of the Open Space environment is Appropriate Structure and Control. Quite often new comers to Open Space, or those who have just heard about it and never personally had the experience, perceive a lack of structure and control. It is absolutely true that pre-determined structure and control is minimal to non-existent. It is also true that in the process of self-organization structure and controls quickly appear at a level of complexity the few planing committees would dare contemplate. However, it is structure and control with a difference, it is appropriate or perhaps better said, emergent. The emergent structure and control is appropriate to the people involved, the task they perform, and the environment in which everything is taking place. From the point of view of learning, particularly High Learning, this is a very happy situation. As new ideas and approaches are generated, the operative structure and control can rapidly shift to support these novel insights, as opposed to standing as a block to their full realization.

The final characteristic of an Open Space gathering is a surprisingly deep sense of community, which I would refer to as Genuine Community. Even in highly conflicted situations, or when the subject matter is something more substantial than a warm fuzzy (designing a major structure, for example), a curious sense of intimacy emerges. At the very least, participants demonstrate respect for each other, but it often goes much further. Why and how such community emerges is a puzzle, but it may not be all that complicated. When people are collectively engaged in an exciting learning experience done in an environment of play, where the structures and controls are appropriate to people, task and environment, you simply can't help but have a heightened sense of community.

Given the presence of these characteristics, all of which appear uninvited, but very much welcome, in an Open Space environment, I do not believe we would be stretching the point to suggest that a learning community, or learning organization is a natural consequence of self-organization. Just as complex adaptive systems are naturally learning systems (learning is what they do), so also in an Open Space environment, learning at very deep levels is just what happens. No courses are announced or presented, nor do experts strut the stage, but learning takes place despite their absence, or maybe because of it. Learning, like order, seems to come for free, at least in Open Space.

You might reasonably object that Open Space is just a meeting, and that what transpires under those singular circumstances may not be indicative of the possibilities in the organization at large. True, but it is also true that a majority of learning interventions are meetings, as in the meeting of the class, seminar, or program. All of this really misses the point, however, which is to explore the possibility that learning, in some genuine sense may (like order) be for free.

Over the years, Open Space has become for me a natural laboratory in which to witness and explore a variety of organizational behaviors. Based on observations in this laboratory, I have come to believe that self-organization is at work in Open Space. I also am coming to believe that all organizations are naturally self-organizing, which (if true) raises some interesting questions related to our efforts as organizational designers. The same observations are raising similar (heretical) thoughts about learning in Open Space, as well as learning in organizations. This is not about proof, but rather possibilities. If the possibility exists that learning is natural function of organizational life (Learning for Free), we would do well to explore that possibility further.


I would be seriously in error were I to suggest that all present day activities associated with learning organizations were a waste of time. However, if the experience to date with Open Space has any validity, it is probably the case that we should revisit our approach to "organizational learning" to see if we might streamline the procedure and optimize the results.

As a starting point for such re-visitation, I would suggest a good look at what might be called the natural sites and modes of learning in our organizations. Were we to gain clarity about the naturally occurring learning moments, we might be in a position to ride the tides of such phenomenon. After all if the tide is going in "your" direction there will be less reason to swim so hard. Or if swimming is your pleasure, the tide will amplify your effort. By the same token swimming against the tide has its price.

Presenting a full taxonomy of natural learning moments in organizations is well beyond the scope of this paper and my ability, but consider the humble coffee pot. Like a Genie's lamp or perhaps the oracle of Delphi, the coffee pot holds a place in organizational mythology as a, or perhaps the, font of all the news. Well before official corporate communications break the news, the coffee pot crowd has the coming event pretty well scooped. Compared to some other forms and sites of learning, the coffee pot may be a little less than rigorous, but it's effect and impact on organizational life can scarcely be overstated. There may also be some question as to the accuracy of the information imparted or the depth of learning achieved, but as a regular source, the coffee pot has few equals.

To the coffee pot we might also add the local watering hole, where water is rarely served, the hallway between meetings, and of most recent date, the InterNet, or its internal counter-part, the IntraNet.

The point is quite simple. Learning is going on all over the place and we haven't even begun to chart the possibilities. If one were to do a careful phenomenology of learning in organizations I strongly suspect that the natural sites of learning would greatly outweigh the formal elements both in terms of actual numbers and also in terms of information/insight communicated. With such information in hand we might be well on the way to understanding how and where organization learning takes place. And if learning is for free, how we might assist the process

1. 1 Senge, Peter, The Fifth Discipline, Doubleday/Currency, 1990.

2. 2 Prigogine, Ilya, Order Out of Chaos, Bantam New Age, 1984

3. 3 Gleick, James, Chaos: Making a New Science, Viking Pengin, 1987

4. 4Waldrop, Mitchell, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, Touchstone, 1992

5. 5Kaufman, Stuart, At Home in the Universe, Oxford, 1995

6. 6 For a fuller description of Open Space Technology, please see my books Open Space Technology: A User's Guide and Expanding Our Now: The Story of Open Space Technology. Both are published by Berrett-Koehler (1997).

7. 7Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1962