‘Open space rewards consensus and punishes dissent’

Dave Snowden made a number of provocative statements  in his presentation to Week 17 of ChangeMooc, but ‘open space leads to consensus’ and ‘consensus is rewarded, dissent is punished’ were two that caught my attention.

As with all such statements, they have to be taken in context. He was arguing that spaces that lead to consensus are a constraint on innovation and creativity and that more conflict and processes such as Ritual Dissent, where people are literally harangued for their ideas, are needed in today’s education system. He denounced what he called ‘fluffy bunny’ approaches to learning and even suggested that good facilitation could be counter-productive.

So – what should we make of all this.

In some ways it is easy to understand and have some sympathy for these ideas. Open space (and it’s important to remember that he was not talking about ‘openness’) allows people to come and go as the please into the learning network or environment.

So would it be fair to say that the people who stay are those who can find like-minded people and ideas of mutual interest in the environment and feel reasonably comfortable there? We don’t often find out much about the reasons why many people don’t stay, but it could be that those are the people with alternative perspectives who either try and fail to ‘rock the boat’ (dissent), or just don’t have the patience to engage in ‘dissent’/posting counter-arguments, or for one reason or another can’t cope with the environment.

Are dissenters punished? My experience in Moocs (where most of my experience with open space has occurred) is that they can be, particularly if they make strongly dissenting posts. Usually the punishment is subtle. Dissenters are ignored. Or sometimes the dissenter receives a volley of angry posts and may even be openly asked to stop dissenting; these dissenters may be labelled as ‘trolls’ as happened in CCK08

A strong dissenting post into an online environment may be accepted if there is already a consensus that the dissenting person is ‘OK’ or has some authority and a respected reputation, as in the case of Stephen Downes and George Siemens, for example, and even Dave Snowden himself. For those not in this position of authority, any dissenting comment is often made tentatively, apologetically or politely, in the knowledge that it could be completely ignored or receive a lot of flak. On the whole, people don’t seem to know a lot about how to constructively handle conflict or dissent in open online spaces, so that we can learn from this and avoid group think.

So does this mean that ‘open space’ leads to consensus and if it does, is that a problem? We have to remember that Dave Snowden’s context for his work is in areas such as counter-terrorism and highly complex situations, where innovation and creativity, rather than consensus, is essential for effective decision making. But the open space offered by the net and open courses such as Moocs, allows those of us who are not learning in such highly complex situations to encounter a greater diversity of alternative perspectives than might otherwise be the case.  That is the point of Moocs, along with learning from these alternative perspectives through interaction and having the autonomy to vote with your feet (i.e. walk away) if you so wish.

I would suggest that if we see consensus as a problem (and it may or may not be according to the context), then it is not the ‘open space’ itself that is the problem. Rather it is knowing how to engage constructively with alternative perspectives, such that this engagement will lead to learning and higher levels of innovation and creativity. I don’t see an engagement with alternative perspectives as necessarily requiring dissent or conflict, but rather requiring ‘openness’ – an open environment, open resources and an openness of mind, self and spirit.

28 thoughts on “‘Open space rewards consensus and punishes dissent’

  1. Jeff Merrell January 21, 2012 / 5:54 pm

    Thanks for this and your previous post regarding Dave’s talk this week. Well said (written) here – it’s aligned with my own experience.

    The bit that I keep coming back to in Dave’s talk is about the importance of process (in contrast to facilitation) in the pursuit of diversity of ideas. It reminded me of a dialogue I heard at a panel discussion featuring expert practitioners from the design field. Someone in the audience asked the panel how they learned to ‘check their biases at the door’ when observing an environment in the early stages of some design project (trying to understand the context before coming up with potential solution design options.) One panelist said they really didn’t/couldn’t check their biases – the solution was to make sure you had different-minded people on your team, doing the observation with you.

    Now – that might be more of an interesting practice than a real process, but the idea (I think) is the same. Accept cognitive bias a part of the human condition and build some work-around to deal with it in situations where you want diversity of ideas.

    I honest do not know what this means when thinking about how this might apply to open, online learning environments. Maybe a practice is to explicitly ask people to play the devils advocate role for a period — granting them permission to dissent. I don’t know. But my sense is there is some gold in that process focus…

  2. suifaijohnmak January 22, 2012 / 3:17 am

    @Jeff, “the solution was to make sure you had different-minded people on your team, doing the observation with you.” That’s easier said than done, in group or team working, though people really want different-minded and skilled people on the team. It depends on the context – what you want from the group or network? Ideas, or decision? If you want more ideas, network could be helpful, but Wisdom of Crowds may not help you to explain those ideas, though they may be a guiding force for the decision. If you want to make a quick decision, then you might find it quicker and easier from network, but then the group would likely give you one consensus based on voting, but not always having diversified opinions, as you want an “agreed” solution. So, this may be translate well in open learning environment, when making decisions. The decision making process seems to be much more complicated in such networks. John

  3. jennymackness January 22, 2012 / 7:56 am

    @plerudulier – I hadn’t intended to ‘paint an ugly picture’ of ‘open space’, which is where I spend a lot of my time 🙂

    For me, it was more a question of how we can take advantage of the affordances of ‘open space’, which Matthias describes so well in his post – http://x28newblog.blog.uni-heidelberg.de/2012/01/21/change11-open-space-binary-participants/ – whilst at the same time maintaining the possibility of robust debate.

    Many thanks for your comment. Jenny

  4. jennymackness January 22, 2012 / 8:20 am

    Jeff – thanks for a thought-provoking comment. The diversity of alternative perspectives that we can encounter in ‘open space’ is one of the potentials of ‘open space’, but then we do need to engage with that diversity. One of the difficulties may be having the technical skills to handle the diversity. Without them, we probably end up encountering only a small group of people and ideas in ‘open space’. Another difficulty is deciding which ideas to spend your time on, in the wealth of ideas that is available. Given these and probably other difficulties too, it occurs to me that it takes a lot of energy to ‘dissent’ as well.

    I can see that a ‘devil’s advocate’ can play a useful role and we have had them (self-selected) in past Moocs. I think it would be fair to say that Ken Anderson played devil’s advocate in CCK08, where he adopted a number of different roles/avatars and put forward arguments from different perspectives, but he would be better able to comment on this, if he ventures here. I think the important thing here was that this wasn’t ‘managed’ by the course convenors, but determined by Ken himself. The problem with having a process such as this in Moocs, or generally in ‘open space’, unlike Dave Snowden’s situation, is that it could contradicts the principle of learner autonomy? We shouldn’t really need ‘permission’ to dissent. I’m still thinking about that 🙂

  5. jennymackness January 22, 2012 / 8:28 am

    @John – thanks for making the clear distinction between a space in which people are required to make decisions and a space in which people float/discuss ideas. I do think we need to keep in mind the context that Dave Snowden works in and how his ideas relate to this context.

    On the other hand, I think Dave Snowden’s presentation did raise the question of whether there is enough ‘debate’ and challenging of ideas, as opposed to comfortable, pleasant discussion, in ‘open space’. My perspective is that there was a lot of debate in CCK08, but we have seen less and less in succeeding Moocs and its interesting to consider why. Is it because Moocs have become more and more distributed into ‘open space’. If so, then this would support Dave Snowden’s argument. Interesting!

  6. Jeff Merrell January 22, 2012 / 5:58 pm

    @John. Points well taken. I am clearly trying to make sense of this myself. And @Jenny I continue to admire your ability to weave in the threads of discussion here and raise more interesting inquiries. Oops! Your facilitation expertise is showing! 🙂

    So I am taking away a couple of slices here. Context matters, as usual. But what we include in context includes whether we are making decisions or generating ideas; whether we’re talking group or network; and what are the critical “principles” binding the group or network (e.g., learner autonomy in MOOCs). The designer context was clearly idea-generating through a small group of expert practitioners (designers observing some environment – borrowing techniques from ethnography, etc.) whose guiding principles in their observation work come from – what? – probably enthnography. Much different than the MOOC context, or open space.

    Either way – a much valued dialogue here in this space. Thanks to all.

  7. jennymackness January 23, 2012 / 5:55 pm

    And thanks to you too Jeff 🙂

  8. Ken Anderson January 23, 2012 / 6:03 pm

    Hi Jenny et. al. Yes, In CCK08 and subsequent courses I offered dissenting opinions both under my ‘real name’ and through ‘avatars’. When I examine my behaviour on this I tend to conclude that my use of avatars was to present dissent (sometimes tentatively) that I was not comfortable doing under my own name. I often tried to raise issues that I felt needed inclusion in the discussion, or just played devil’s advocate due to boredom, humour, unease over the apparent group-think, or trying to look at the issues from other perspectives. I think Dave Snowden makes a good point. I am not sure about the open spaces argument, but it does seem clear that dissent weakens in MOOCs historically over time, as you have noted, and I am assuming MOOCs are considered an open space?

    I do tend to think that MOOCs lean towards group think, ‘fluffy bunny’ learning as noted and I place a lower value on that. But clearly many are comfortable with ‘fluffy bunnies’, probably a majority if the assorted informal polls, comments, etc. in CCK08 are accurate. I prefer a harsher environment as I think it facilitates (there’s that word again) deeper, more engaging, more critical, thinking. And of course context is important – fluffy bunny learning is very appropriate in K-4, perhaps, but likely not so much in complex adult learning environments.

  9. jennymackness January 23, 2012 / 8:08 pm

    Hi Ken – so pleased that you ‘ventured here’. I pretty much agree with everything you have said, except the need for a ‘harsher’ environment for deeper, more engaging and more critical thinking. A ‘harsher’ environment, whilst it might suit some, might also exclude many deeply critical thinkers – but I agree that we do need to know more about what kinds of environment encourage critical thinking and challenge – what are the characteristics of such an environment?

  10. brainysmurf January 23, 2012 / 8:24 pm

    A fascinating journey as always, thanks @jenny and commentors above. My experience with “open space’ processes is generally positive such that they are a welcome break from traditional meeting formats. However, Dave’s presentation and this post have me reflecting and realizing there wasn’t a lot of dissent welcomed there (unless it was group dissent about topic X on which people wanted to find other victims to share their complaints). Sure, you could vote with feet and move elsewhere…to another pod where consensus and fluffy-bunniness was encouraged.

    I’ll have to look further into Ritual Dissent but from Dave’s description last week, it sounded a bit like Edward DeBono’s Six Hats parallel thinking approach in which one purposefully looks at ideas from competing viewpoints or devil’s advocacy.

    As for moocs, I do enjoy the fluffy bunnies here because they are actually a safe haven from all the naysayers about collaborative technology that still exist in my workplace. Quite frankly, the dissent (and barriers and complaints and fears) about using social media in learning is getting exhausting and it’s nice to be among like-minded types here. 🙂

  11. Ken Anderson January 23, 2012 / 8:43 pm

    Well, for the sake of discussion, perhaps we can consider a ‘environmental comfort continuum’ ranging from ‘Fluffy Bunny’ to ‘Harsher’, left to right. We could determine the characteristics of each end of the continuum, and map learner preferences along it, I suppose. You are likely right – there will be some critical thinkers who prefer the left side of this continuum. As well as some on the right. Maybe we need to ibisect the continuum at right angles with a second continuum, say one of less to more Critical thinking. That would create 4 quadrants (spaces) in which to plot learner preferences. Maybe this would be a worthwhile exercise. A third dimension might include a contextual continuum…

    I guess the thought I am leaning towards is that there is likely no one size fits all (OSFA) environment that encourages/facilitates critical thinking. So my answer to your question – what are the characteristics of such an environment? is: it depends….On learner preferences, subject context, learner attributes, environmental affordances etc. Is a MOOC a potential contender for the OFSA award? I doubt it. It seems that some people are not comfortable engaging in them, and leave, as you have noted. The ones who stay are likely like-minded, again, as you noted above. It may be necessary to create a diversity of spaces in order to accommodate a diversity of like-minders.

  12. jennymackness January 23, 2012 / 10:20 pm

    @brainysmurf – I interpreted ‘Ritual Dissent’ as a managed process of strident dissent – so quite a bit stronger than the Six Hats approach, which I would see more as recognising alternative perspectives and allowing them a voice.

    I’m thinking about the difference between dissent and critical thinking and challenge and whether we have enough of it in Moocs. Will reflect on this:-)

    Thanks for your comment, Jenny

  13. jennymackness January 23, 2012 / 10:29 pm

    Hi Ken – I like your idea of four quadrants plus a third dimension, to think about the different spaces which learners in Moocs and other open spaces might like to inhabit. I agree that there won’t be a one size fits all environment – but maybe its possible to identify potential different spaces and some of the characteristics associated with each of those. I think this probably happens anyhow, i.e. people gravitate towards smaller environments within the overall Mooc, where learning needs and preferences are met. Interesting ideas! Thanks.

  14. Ken Anderson January 26, 2012 / 6:07 pm

    Maybe the language framework in this editorial can help forward the discussion of open spaces/conformity etc:


    The authors review articles in the current JCACS journal, noting one in which it is asserted that “an outsider…the figure of the bohemian suggests the necessity of pushing on the bounds of normal ways of being in order to foster creativity, new ways of thinking, and the evolution of thought”. (p.3).

    Maybe this author is saying something similar to Snowden?

    I also wonder about the definition of ‘open’. What does this mean in the context here? Does it refer to accessibility, availability? Participation? Are barriers to participation being considered? e.g. while there is no monetary fee to participate in change11 certainly there are requirements for connection – internet, appliance etc.

  15. jennymackness January 29, 2012 / 8:32 am

    Ken – thanks so much for the link you have shared. Christopher de Luca’s article – https://pi.library.yorku.ca/ojs/index.php/jcacs/article/view/32072 – resonates in many ways with my own thinking. For example – this quote from p.50

    Hence I believe that education must work against our instinct to resolve uncertainty and confusion, and instead work to create such points of inner dissonance. We must encourage teachers and students to traipse into the risky realm of the unknown, to teeter on the tightrope of uncertainty.

    I’m not sure how Dave Snowden would define ‘open space’, but for me it is a space in which one can practise ‘openness’ and by ‘openness’, I mean openness of mind, self and spirit. I am constantly confronted by my own inability to do this!

    One interesting thing that de Luca says in his article, is that to be ‘bohemian’ we have to have our feet in both camps, i.e. within and outside of the mainstream

    While some portrayals depict a bohemian as fully independent and against mainstream culture, in reality, the bohemian was a modern social character whose activities were defined by the commercial marketplace and social hierarchy (Gluck, 2000). In order to express a character in opposition to the mainstream, the bohemian must, in part, identify with the activities and ideologies of mainstream culture. Bohemians can only exist in relation to a normative lifestyle. (p.33)

    At least that’s how I interpret it. I sense that this is important in relation to working in open space, but I haven’t quite put my finger on why yet.

  16. jennymackness January 30, 2012 / 7:45 pm

    Hello Frances – thanks for your comment and the link, which I had already seen :-).

    My interest is not so much in comparing academic journals with blogs as forms of publication, but of how they can be merged. You have mentioned in your post the possibility of posting drafts of journal articles (work in progress) on your blog – which raises issues for some academic journals of what counts as pre-publication. There is also the issue of whether blog posts can be cited in academic journal articles, which seems to be an ongoing issue.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts if you return here 🙂


  17. Gavin Smith Bartaserlo February 11, 2012 / 12:16 am

    The fact of the matter is that all writers, even the freest of thinkers, bring at least some bias to the table and editors know this.

  18. Bruce Waltuck July 4, 2013 / 11:45 pm

    Well after the fact but… Was it clear to all tnat Dave was talking about a specific group dialogue methodology? It is called Open Space Technology, and was designed by Harrison Owen. Owen’s OST methid is commonly referred to as “Open Soace.” OST events have certain design criteria, and minimal rules for the engagement and behaviors of participants. Whoever comes, is who was supposed to be there. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened. When it is over, it’s over. And yes, the “law of two feet” which says that if you do not feel the table/group you are at is worthwhile and meaningful, you can (maybe should) get up and go to another table/group (or put up a sign to offer your own idea/group). These rules, combined with the absence of facilitation, do permit dominator types to overly influence groups. Dissent is often diminished. Consensus may yield to the over-influence of powerful influencers.

  19. jennymackness July 5, 2013 / 5:29 am

    Thanks Bruce for this helpful comment. I’m not sure whether it was clear to all ‘tnat Dave was talking about a specific group dialogue methodology’ – but it wasn’t clear to me. This makes more sense now.

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