Remembering Harrison Owen, 1935 – 2024

CAMDEN, ME. Harrison Hollingsworth Owen Sr, author and consultant of Potomac, Maryland died on March 16, 2024 in Camden, Maine from natural causes.

Owen was born December 2, 1935 in Evanston, Illinois to Raymond Smith Owen and Mary Siter Owen. Shortly after his birth his parents divorced, and Owen returned with his mother to suburban Philadelphia. He attended The Episcopal Academy but graduated from Saint Andrew’s School in Middletown Delaware in 1953. He went to Williams College (BA, 1957). While at Williams he married Frances Chambers of New York City. The marriage produced three children (Cameron Hollingsworth, Amy Siter, and Barry Crawford) and ended in divorce in 1965. 

Subsequent to Williams College, Owen attended The Virginia Theological Seminary (BD, 1960) and was ordained Priest in the Episcopal Church (1961). He served as Chaplain to Johns Hopkins University until 1963, leaving to attend Vanderbilt University (MA 1965) for graduate work in Biblical Studies. While at Vanderbilt, Owen became deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement in the Nashville area, an activity which necessitated his leaving town in 1965 for Washington DC.

In Washington Owen became the Associate Rector of St Margaret’s Episcopal Church and was simultaneously the Executive Director of The Adams Morgan Community Council. As Executive Director, Owen was instrumental in the development of the Morgan School project in association with the Institute for Policy Studies and other community organizations.

In 1967 Owen married Ethelyn Rose Abbott and the couple have two children, Mary Christine, and Harrison Hollingsworth Jr. Immediately after their marriage they moved to Liberia, West Africa where Owen was the Associate Director of Peace Corps/Liberia with responsibility for volunteers in the capitol city. That assignment ended in 1970 and Owen returned to the United States to become Director of the Regional Medical Program for Long Island, a federal effort to develop healthcare infrastructure.

In 1974 Owen returned to Washington, assuming a position at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI/ NIH) as Program Coordinator for the newly mandated Office of Education, Prevention, and Control. Two years later, Owen joined the staff of the Chief Medical Director of the Veterans Administration as a special assistant with responsibility for the senior level executive development program known as the VA Scholars, as well as being the Executive Secretary of the National Advisory Group. During this time Owen was a Schedule C appointment, and when it became clear that President Carter was probably not going serve for a second term, Owen left federal service to create his own company, H..H..Owen and Co in 1979.

In the early 1980’s Owen and several of his colleagues noticed that their client organizations did not evidence the standard patterns of growth and development, whereby an organization would proceed through predictable stages from small to larger. The observed process was rather more random and radical involving what could only be called state changes. The traditional pattern was referred to as organization development, and indeed there is a body of knowledge and practice known by the same name: Organization Development. The process that Owen saw could only be called transformation, and leading to the creation of a new body of knowledge and practice: Organization Transformation.

In the summer of 1983, Owen convened the First International Symposium on Organization Transformation. The objective was the preliminary definition of this new area of organizational thinking and practice. Two Hundred and fifty consultants and academics from around the world gathered for the occasion, and Organization Transformation was born.

The initial reaction to the appearance of Organization Transformation (OT) was not uniformly positive, indeed the traditional management consulting community and those who considered themselves practitioners of Organization Development (OD) considered the newcomer to be overly radical and definitely “New Age.” Now, some thirty years later, transformation in organizations, indeed Organization Transformation, has become virtually mainline.

In 1985, in preparation for the Third International Symposium on Organization Transformation, Owen designed a deceptively simple approach to organizing meetings known as Open Space Technology (OST). Essentially the participants are invited to sit in a circle, create a bulletin board displaying the issues they wish to discuss, determine the time and place of meetings in a market place environment, and go to work. What began as a simple experiment has now become a global phenomenon.

Now some 30 years after its design, OST has been used well in excess of 300,000 times in 146 countries around the world. Group sizes have ranged from 5 to well over 3000 for such purposes as designing buildings, manufacturing processes, political platforms, and environmental programs. Total organizing time is typically 1½ hours even with 2000 people and a hugely complex and conflicted subject. Only a single facilitator is needed to start and conclude the program. There is no requirement for agenda preparation, nor advance training for those involved as participants. The people run it all by themselves.

It is safe to say that OST violates virtually every principle and practice for the management of meetings, and probably management itself. The basic question is how could something so simple accomplish so much? Were it the case that OST happened only once or twice, it could be viewed as a curious anomaly. However, OST has been used thousands of times over 30 years with the same or comparable results. How could that possibly happen?

For Owen, this question became a rich focal point for his work over the next 30 years. As he worked with multiple clients on every continent except Antarctica, the answer, or at least his answer, became clearer. The power behind OST was none other than the primal and fundamental power of self-organization. And Open Space Technology itself became a marvelous natural experiment in which to observe the phenomenon of self-organization in human systems. Owen shared his observations and conclusions in a series of books, the last five (of 12) all being published by Berrett-Koehler.

Owen is a Fellow of the World Business Academy and is listed in Who’s Who in Business and Finance as well as Who’s Who in America. He is survived by his wife, Ethelyn, five children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.