Gabriela Ender
Ashoka Fellow seit 2008   |   Germany

Gabriela Ender

Gabriela Ender has developed a unique real-time collaboration system that brings people together across borders and allows them to jointly come up with constructive bottom-up solutions to their…
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This description of Gabriela Ender's work was prepared when Gabriela Ender was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.


Gabriela Ender has developed a unique real-time collaboration system that brings people together across borders and allows them to jointly come up with constructive bottom-up solutions to their pressing problems. With her revolutionary OpenSpace-Online® methodology she empowers social organizations and businesses to find a new, constructive way to cope with change, to open new spaces for co-creative excellence, and to allow for more democratic and sustainable decision making.

Die neue Idee

Gabriela is transforming the way knowledge and information flows and decisions are made, both within and between organizations, and is making it possible for good bottom-up solutions to intractable social problems to be channeled to the relevant decision makers. Using the internet in a new way, she provides her methodology, OpenSpace-Online® through an internet platform to organizations and institutions across the globe. She brings stakeholders together online and helps structure their interaction to become self-driven, and mines the wisdom of the masses without falling into chaos.

Through clearly defined, virtual collaborative sessions, she allows participants from all levels of one organization or from several organizations to set a common agenda and work towards solutions at parallel, non-hierarchical levels. Gabriela links organizations and stakeholders across cyber space who would not otherwise have the opportunity to interact, and helps them to achieve joint solutions to common problems. All participants share their expertise and collaborate. Since her system does not allow a pre-set agenda, participants begin with a blank space and must become leaders: Regardless of their seniority, they share problems, ideas, and solutions. This creates a vertical change process: In a transparent, fast, and economical way, Gabriela enables senior managers and senior experts to learn that they can have a deeper impact by drawing on the knowledge, wisdom, and best practices of their constituents, who often know a problem best and may have a unique insight about how to solve it. Thus, stakeholders make their knowledge and experience heard, inform decision making, and shape institutional policies. Each side improves their institutions and their value to customers and stakeholders.

Gabriela also builds networks of innovative organizations and respected opinion leaders to showcase how the collective expertise created through OpenSpace-Online® provides constructive solutions for key topics like climate change or health prevention. Thus, convincing the next round of adopters, her goal is to fundamentally change the structure of how people work together. Gabriela knows the time is ripe for her methodology: People know that solutions to pressing problems cannot be found through academic expertise alone, but only if the expertise of all stakeholders is considered, and more importantly, if those relevant to implementing the solution are part of the process.

Das Problem

Despite all of the talk about distributed decision-making, most organizations, including COs, that are considered as highly progressive, move knowledge and information hierarchically. Decisions are usually made by upper-level management, in consultation with mid-level managers. If knowledge and information filters up from low-level employees (employees closest to implementation), it does so haphazardly or accidentally. A great deal of knowledge and organizational efficiency is thus lost. When employees lower in the organizational hierarchy feel that they are being ignored, and that solutions are simply being dictated from above, they tend to be invest less to implement those decisions. They either pursue their own agendas, believing they know best, or they lose motivation altogether. For these reasons, most organizations and businesses suffer from chronic inefficiency.

The problem of information sharing grows more difficult when groups try to move knowledge and information and enable change among organizations. Millions are spent organizing expensive, face-to-face conferences on important topics. The price of oil and the costs to global climate are making conferences more difficult to justify. What is more, the enthusiasm generated at one-off conferences often subsides quickly when participants return to their daily work, and joint action is notoriously difficult to sustain. The agenda is typically set by a select group, and usually does not meet the expectations and topics relevant to all participants. Decisions about who is invited to speak and participants are decided based on hierarchies, and are often politically motivated; reducing most participants to listeners, instead of tapping into their expertise. There are many solutions to social and change problems pioneered by small organizations or by areas of the workforce, but they may have little influence shaping official agendas because they cannot make their knowledge available to those with decision making power.

Though the internet has offered hope to overcome these problems, currently, there is no online platform that can handle all of them. Much of the available online conferencing software is expensive and unavailable to small social sector organizations. Other software, like the popular Webinars, simply reproduces the hierarchical agenda-setting of face-to-face conferences. No one has unlocked the full distributed potential of co-creative knowledge-sharing and meaningful real-time dialoguing via the internet.

Die Strategie

Observing how institutions often prevent the exchange of knowledge between management and employees, Gabriela created OpenSpace-Online® —a methodology and online platform that combines comprehensive face-to-face change facilitation expertise, the latest IT/security requirements, and open space principles to allow for a new form of collaboration.

Unlike most face-to-face workshops or other online conferences, there is no moderator, no preconceived agenda, but only a question that guides the theme of the session. Gabriela’s strategy was to transfer her moderator know-how into a virtual-facilitated, clearly structured, real-time conference environment. All users participate on equal terms and as there are no pre-written content or predetermined speakers, they must be the leaders: Gabriela has them begin the session by coming up with the range of pressing issues, insights, successes, or questions. The participants then freely group themselves around the topics they find most relevant, and begin online conversations and exchanges. These sessions happen in three successive session phases. Each phase contains parallel workshops. Any participant can take over the role of a workshop convener.

Users can move back and forth between different working sessions, all the while keeping up with the posted discussions in several. They can also go to a separate space for informal conversations. Rather than sit politely while their bosses go on, every user can move between sessions with a click and may participate the moment they have an idea—simply by typing it—and contribute their thoughts. The relevance of their contribution is echoed by the reaction of the other uses—whether many or just a few pick up the comment and elaborate on it.

The openness of these participatory sessions, and the democratic quality of the agenda-setting, enables information to move easily, for example, from field offices to central offices. Field officers may therefore contribute freely to “important” conversations about organizational strategy. They can also form separate workshops to develop their own solutions to on-the-ground problems, which can later be read by others in the organization. No notes need be taken: The software keeps a record of all of the conversations, prioritizing results, keeping track of agreements and contact data and compiling them for all participants into an immediately available conference book. Through this form of collaboration, organizations and individuals take a new view on problem-solving, as it becomes possible to include those in the decision making process who are most passionate about it or will be most affected. Individuals are empowered to overcome their isolation and have a real say in their organization. Gabriela’s methodology enables those with good solutions and key insights—regardless of their seniority—to reach key decision makers. Gabriela attracts key institutions from the social, but also the public and private sectors to her platform, e.g. the Centre for Sustainability Management (CSM), the German Network of Innovative Future Towns, the German Association of Municipalities, Deutsche Telekom, or international change management networks, and uses them as multipliers and early adopters to attract others. She helps these organizations to manage OpenSpace-Online® projects in different places across the globe , for example the first online climate change summit.

The social impact of this free knowledge exchange both on society and on the respective institution is best illustrated by examples: For instance, Gabriela, by partnering with the Registered Nurse Association of Ontario (RNAO), offered her platform to Canadian nurses all over the country who had been traumatized by the SARS epidemic and concerned they had been caught unprepared. The collaboration through OpenSpace-Online® allowed them to share their experiences and make recommendations about how to effectively manage future outbreaks of diseases like SARS. The documentation provided RNAO with unique insights they used in their new strategy and to plan professional development activities to support nurses. In addition, they incorporated the nurses' collective wisdom and suggestions into a report to the government, which has since been put into law. The nurses felt that OpenSpace-Online® had helped them with their personal healing journey and had enhanced the reputation of RNAO as a health care leader—a win-win situation for everyone with clear social impact.

Gabriela has worked very hard on the simplicity of the platform’s design. She understands that open, unfettered dialogue can only happen if all employees and stakeholders, at all skill and age levels, feel that they can easily master the technology, and do not feel intimidated by its complexity. She created the whole conferencing system (including an Administrator-Tool) as a do-it-yourself technology. Without the help of third parties, OpenSpace-Online® meetings are completely independent to organize and to use.

To ensure that her methodology supports different needs and goals in an optimal way, Gabriela created two different OpenSpace-Online® conference types. The “classic version” promotes ongoing group processes, accelerates innovation and creativity, and supports network¬ing and knowledge sharing. A “special version” adds the element of prioritizing and action planning and thus supports result-oriented work, strategic planning, and decision making. After the hot issues of the day are identified, an action-planning phase follows, encouraging participants to concretely plan how to work together after the conference is finished.

Gabriela encourages organizations to use her platform to complement face-to-face meetings. In this way, communities and relationships initiated through in-person meetings can be strengthened over time, and real results-driven cooperation can blossom.

Gabriela is not, however, simply interested in bringing a product to market. She wants to change the way organizations move knowledge and information, and understands that she will have to work actively to disseminate both her online platform and her vision of organizational health and efficiency. Her dissemination strategy has several elements. First, she gathers a group of “ambassadors”—experts and opinion leaders in different fields—who work in influential organizations. These ambassadors function as advocates for her technology and participatory methods by organizing OpenSpace-Online® collaborations and by pitching her idea to partners and key target groups.

Next, Gabriela sets up several “lighthouse projects,” by bringing together public institutions, businesses, and COs for collaboration on important social topics, and using media coverage to spread the results. An example can help make this process more vivid. In December 2007, the first online climate summit was held via OpenSpace-Online®. Gabriela drew in the German Association of Towns and Municipalities, and through thirty-three different workshops, participants from city governments and other interested organizations jointly explored strategies that German towns and cities can implement to reduce CO2 emissions. She enabled cities to exchange best practices easily and share concerns and insights. The conference was very successful and the first results have been implemented, offline collaboration ensured, and new follow-up OpenSpace-Online® sessions have been scheduled. The summit received wide media coverage, and helped raise awareness not only about global warming, but also about the benefits of using OpenSpace-Online®.

Third, she is skillfully drawing public attention to her work. Shortly after her full-scale launch, Gabriela was selected a “Top 10 World Changer 2006,” award administered by PoliticsOnline in the U.S. and by the World E-government Forum in Paris. The award is given once a year to the internet projects with the greatest potential to change the world. She has also won the innovation prize awarded by the German “Initiative of small and medium sized companies,” which described OpenSpace-Online® as one of the most innovative solutions of information sharing for small and medium-sized businesses.

Fourth, knowing her own limitations, Gabriela has begun to spread her technology though a network of fellow change facilitators, trainers, and consultants who are hired by clients to improve organizational efficiency. Having worked as an organizational consultant and change facilitator for many years, Gabriela has an extensive network of contacts, both in the U.S. and Europe. OpenSpace-Online® allows change facilitators and consultants to improve the services they bring to their clients and increase client satisfaction, so it is not a hard sell for Gabriela. So far, 90 percent of her users want to use the platform again. Organizations discover that OpenSpace-Online® helps them access vital, untapped knowledge, improve the efficiency of their operations, and save on travel costs.

Over six hundred OpenSpace-Online® conferences have been held, involving participants in almost sixty countries. Gabriela’s immediate challenge is to spread her platform to a critical mass of users, and to reach a point when the platform will begin to sell itself. Gabriela knows the time is ripe for her methodology: The younger generation of managers now rising to power has been trained to understand that organizational efficiency depends on the buy-in of multiple stakeholders. They understand, in theory, that the people implementing organizational solutions must be involved in the decision-making process and feel invested in it. They simply need the concrete vision and assistance to make it happen.

Gabriela finances her activities not by selling access to her platform, but by managing collaborative sessions. Any group interested in organizing a conference via OpenSpace-Online® can purchase access easily. Gabriela offers two packages: First, organizations can buy a single collaborative session, or pay individually for as many sessions as they would like. Second, they can purchase a one-, two-, or three-year license which allows them to host as many sessions as they please. Gabriela sets the pricing on a sliding scale, depending on the organization’s needs and resources. She offers steep discounts to COs by using revenue from corporate clients who pay the full rate.

Die Person

When Gabriela’s father died suddenly, she was finishing her college studies. His death left her at the head of the construction company he founded and managed over twenty-five years. She quit her studies to immerse herself in the business, trusting the managers to run the operations, but serving as a member of the advisory board. After two years of successful operations, the business started showing losses, despite having a strong client base and many new construction projects. Gabriela hired the services of several consulting firms to help her figure out what was wrong. All of them interviewed the senior and mid-level management and studied the books; none found a problem. It wasn’t until she befriended a newly hired architect, and arranged to have him talk informally with the construction workers, that she understood the problem: Management was corrupt, and had been hiring and firing foremen almost every three months to prevent any of them from coming to understand the extent of the double-dealing. By the time she discovered this, it was too late to save the business. But Gabriela came away with an insight that would motivate all of her work in subsequent years: Knowledge and information lies trapped at the bottom of organizational hierarchies, and must be unlocked.

Gabriela returned to school to study business and communications. The question that animated her studies was: What does a healthy organization look like, and how does knowledge and information flow within it? She wrote a Master’s thesis in Systems Theory and Paradigm Shift in Leadership. In 1995, she founded a business, which offered coaching in holistic organizational change and communications. During this time, she fell in love with the face-to-face Open Space large group method, called Open Space Technology (OST), developed by an American visionary named Harrison Owen, who she traveled to meet and befriended, and who wholly supports her. OST is a conference format “institutionalizing coffee breaks,” and allows for free agenda setting and exchange between participants. Being convinced about the methodology and the changes it brought to organizations she worked with, Gabriela incorporated it into her business and started to set up a train the trainer- multiplying scheme to train as many change facilitators as possible in this methodology. Feeling the limitations of the methodology and fascinated by a more interconnected world, she was looking for the right how-tos to enable collaboration across hierarchies and across space.

One day, the whole vision for OpenSpace-Online® came into her mind. She knew she had to bring this solution to the world. Gabriela set aside her consulting income and stepped into full financial risk. With limited funds, but with a clear idea of what she wanted to accomplish, Gabriela founded a small company to make her vision a reality. It took her three years of painstaking work and attention to detail to bring her vision for OpenSpace-Online® into reality. Almost 50 change facilitator colleagues from all continents were involved to test the software during an intensive beta phase. In 2002 she launched the first software version within her international change networks. Between 2002 and 2005 Gabriela collected as much user feedback as possible; together with her development goals she and her team created version 2.0. The revised platform was launched in summer 2007. Gabriela is now focusing both on the further development of her technology and on increasing dissemination of OpenSpace-Online® to empower as many groups, organizations, and businesses to co-create the future for the greater good of society by overcoming the limitations of time and space.