Knowledge Cafés – What Are They?

Recently I attended an online gathering known as a Knowledge Café. It was organised by David Gurteen who is well known for his many contributions to knowledge management as well as running such Cafés all over the world.

Here’s David’s description of a Knowledge Café and it’s purpose (my emphasis in bold):

“A Knowledge Café is designed to engage people with a subject or theme. I start with a short talk on a theme for maybe as little as ten minutes (though it could be a longer 30-45 minutes talk) and then pose a single open ended question for the participants. They then break into groups to discuss the theme and the question and then reconvene as a large group to finish off with a large group discussion. The Café is not about debate or making decisions but about gaining a better understanding of a topic or issue.”

Written like this the Cafés can be physical face-to-face gatherings or online. I’ve attended the physical version of these gatherings for over 15 years in various locations in London but this was my first online one (the change in approach was necessitated by COVID-19).

As an example of a previous physical Café, I’ve written about one held at the headquarters of Arup here.

Incidentally the word ‘café’ is an unusual but good one as it differentiates it from a standard meeting (where there may be an agenda, decisions, actions etc). It also conjures up an image of free-form conversations mimicking what happens in actual coffee shops when talking with friends. It’s interesting to note that free-form conversations on a theme or question (to gain better understanding) are relatively rare in business and organisations.

They can be used, amongst other things, to complement formal meetings.

Contrasting different types of conversations

The process for the online cafe (it took 2 hours in total) was:

  • Speed conversation – 2-3 short one-on-one conversations with different participants (ice breaker)
  • Presentation, David Gurteen gives an overview of the cafe and introduces the question
  • Breakout rooms where 3-4 people talk about the question amongst themselves for c 15 mins each time
  • Gathering together as a complete group to share insights and views

The question for the current meeting was ‘How can we disagree constructively?”

On this occasion there were 37 participants from 11 countries (pretty impressive, originally 80 people had signed up from 23 countries!). This translates to a wide variety of experiences, backgrounds and cultures to converse on the question.

In my case, the speed conversation was with someone from France who was attending for the first time and then someone from the US. The aim is just to get in the mood for talking to people you’ve never met before (and may never meet again).

In the small group conversations, the question was addressed in groups of 3-4. This was repeated 3 times and often themes carried on from one group to the next. One interesting aspect that came up very quickly was how or whether you show disagreement can be very cultural eg East v West. This was something that was not prevalent in the physical meetings I’d been involved in previously so was an interesting new aspect.

Large group discussion – quite a few points resulted, here are some I liked especially:

  • Many role models are adversarial (eg on TV) so there was a need to develop alternative more conversation-based leadership styles
  • Approach conversations with an attitude of curiosity to avoid knee-jerk reactions
  • Encourage conversation in the education system (listening skills etc) so better known
  • Appreciation of the subtle role of cultural aspects

Others may well have drawn out other key points. What you take away from a Knowledge Café will be quite personal.

It was amusing that after the café, and later on in the evening, I was watching a news analysis programme where the interviewer asked ‘Can you guarantee X?’. It was obvious that no one could guarantee anything like X (especially in the current circumstances) but the aim was to get a ’no’ and then the resulting criticism. The interviewee, being experienced, responded by answering a different but related question, fairly mechanically but at least well-rehearsed. This went round in a circle a few times before they agreed to move on to another question which had a similar response. So the net understanding from the interaction was minimal. After watching this I was quite frustrated, especially after coming out of the Knowledge Café the complete opposite, very energised! It gives a tantalising glimpse of how things could be.

You can find out more about forthcoming Knowledge Café events here. Hopefully, in time, there will be a possibility of both face-to-face and online gatherings, as each offer slightly different benefits.

Comment on Cultural Differences:
There are different approaches to handling these but a good starting point is The Culture Map by Erin Meyer (‘provides a field-tested model for decoding how cultural differences impact international business’).

Comment on Physical Knowledge Cafés:
In London, these meetings have been held in a wide variety of locations, typically universities, government departments and commercial companies as all have a vested interest in knowledge management. This also provided an interesting and changing mix of participants.

Exhibitions At The London Tates

I’ve recently been to exhibitions at Tate Britain and Tate Modern in London. The first was by (the very impressive) Paula Rego, followed by Anicka Yi and Rodin, and finally the recently opened Hogarth exhibition. I’m a member (supporter) of the Tate and decided a couple of months ago to visit regularly as Covid-19 issues are now greatly reduced and London is not far away. It’s also good to support the arts whenever possible as they are currently going through such a difficult period (funding).

Here are a few photos from these interesting exhibitions:

Paula Rego at Tate Britain
Paula Rego
Very interesting background on Paula Rego
Overview of part of the Rodin exhibition at Tate Modern
The famous Burghers of Calais by Rodin
Overview of the living machines installation by Anicka Yi in the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern
Close up of a living machine (it moves around in response to sensors, best appreciated through a video eg here)
Entrance to the large Hogarth Exhibition at Tate Britain
Miss Mary Edwards by William Hogarth

Making Decisions Under Doubt

A previous post discussed new approaches to handling doubt, motivating it’s use as a source of creativity and wisdom rather than as a mental block. There was a focus on exploring unknowns and not being paralysed by them. I was interested to see this quote from Deborah Meaden, a well-known UK entrepreneur and investor:

“But my thing is, all I need to know is enough to know what I don’t know. I don’t need to know everything. I can find the expert. I always look for the expert in the room. I need to know what I don’t know. And once I feel like I will know what I don’t know. Then I can invest.”

Meaden appears on a TV show, Dragons’ Den, where a panel of investors grill a wide range of entrepreneurs who are looking for investment and business advice to grow their businesses. Although you only see an edited version, it appears that decisions have to be made fairly quickly on limited and sometimes confusing information. The quote indicates how she proceeds even under doubt.

Doubt As A Superpower

The most popular post I’ve ever written concerns the well-known physicist Richard Feynman and how he overcame a brief period of dejection after winning the Nobel prize in 1965. Perhaps paradoxically, he doubted his ability to continue to make useful and original contributions to theoretical physics after the prize, maybe thinking he had reached his peak.

On this theme, I heard a podcast recently featuring Nicola Reindorp, the CEO of the international charity Crisis Action. She aimed to recast doubt as a source of creativity and innovation rather than as an annoying obstacle.

From an early age we’re given models of behaviour that focus on certainty of purpose and having leaders that, if they have doubts, hide or mask them. This occurs even in situations where it’s hard to believe in any form of certainty due to the situation being intrinsically complex (climate change, pandemics etc).

Although Reindorp had important doubts during her career, eventually she came to the conclusion that doubt can be a productive driver for insight and wisdom. She proposes the question: perhaps some of the conventional myths and stories we’re fed on handling doubt are simply misleading or even wrong?

Turning things around, she suggests viewing doubt as a potential superpower that helps us realise what we don’t know and hence what important perspectives might be missing. Practically this amounts to using doubt to formulate and ask more questions, especially on what may be absent and then carefully listening to the feedback. All this is done in a positive spirit of curiosity and learning rather than anxiety and worry.

I thought her viewpoint was well summed up by her phrase

“What have my doubts come to teach me?”

That’s quite a powerful question and has wide applicability, not just in a business or work setting.

In the case of the (highly original) Feynman, and in a research setting, he learned that it it was best to focus on your own work and disregard or not be unduly influenced by the work of others (see here):

“That’s what I’d forgotten!” he shouted (in the middle of the night). “You have to worry about your own work and ignore what everyone else is doing.” At first light, he called his wife, Gweneth, and said, “I think I’ve figured it out. Now I’ll be able to work again!”

An obvious repost to Reindorp’s approach to handling doubt is that, unbridled, focusing on doubt could just lead to prevarication and avoiding taking action (similar to ‘paralysis through analysis’). Her response to this was there is a need to impose a process discipline and a time frame for action. Indeed overall there should be a bias to action, so if still in doubt simply act but learn through the result, whether it’s ‘success’ or ‘failure’.

It’s an interesting idea and I hope she’s able to expand on it through a book or similar (she mentions her ideas were developed over a long period through conversations with leaders from many areas). It would be great to hear some situations where it worked well, where it didn’t and the lessons so far drawn from this. A brief overview can be found here (extract below):

“I’ve been interviewing leaders from different sectors, generations, ethnicities, nationalities and sexualities about their views and experiences of doubt. I’ve also talked to psychologists, neuroscientists, behavioural economists, teachers of leadership, coaches and counsellors about doubt, certainty and leadership, what we’re learning at this moment in history, including what the COVID pandemic may be teaching us…

Doubt is experienced as a destructive thing – the cause of emotional pain and stress, the cause of breakdowns, sleeplessness, freezing on stage in front of hundreds. Those I’ve interviewed give their doubts names of dark places and demonic creatures.”

In particular it would be interesting to better understand the practicalities of conversation and listening in this approach. Although ‘we need to question and listen more’ is easy to say, doing it in practice needs well thought out approaches. See for example the work of David Gurteen who has been raising awareness and promoting these (usually untapped skills) for over 20 years often using so-called ‘knowledge cafes’. I also think it’s helpful to broaden the discussion as everyone is a leader in some way or other (it’s just a matter of scale), so this way of thinking should not just be restricted to ‘conventional’ or hierarchical leaders.

Doing a bit of googling, there are some recent articles from the Said Business School that also go into this topic. Here’s an extract (see here):

“Doubt is generally viewed as a negative trait, yet in times of uncertainty, it is emotionally and intellectually essential. CEOs who incorporate doubt into their decision-making process can question and test their environment and traverse the currents of the market they operate in and add another layer of vetting to their process. While we have an innate and primal urge to seek certainty, our certainty can be deceiving and can sometimes have us drawing a wrong conclusion. To counteract this hidden mind trap, we can harness our doubt and cultivate it to awaken our curiosity, use it as a source for continuous learning and as a catalyst for agility, to explore other possibilities freely. Those with a willingness to embrace uncertainty and leverage the power of doubt can improve their judgment and make higher quality decisions.”

This article on how CEOs manage doubt is also helpful (see here):

“Understanding the risks and remedies for doubt enables leaders to mitigate their discomfort, whether its source is cognitive or emotional, and return to a zone where they can make more productive and well-considered choices, turning doubt into a powerful decision tool.”

Serendipitous Conversations

Last week I was waiting at the station for a train to make a trip to a nearby town. For a change I decided not to take the car. Whilst waiting, a gregarious Glaswegian starting chatting to a man and a woman standing nearby. They ended up talking enthusiastically about the music scene in Glasgow in the 80s. He used to play in a band and so knew lots of musicians and she, by chance, was a journalist who also had lots of music connections. As I’d lived in Glasgow for three years I decided to join in the discussion too. A very friendly, relaxed and enjoyable conversation then took place revealing lots of unexpected connections (illustrating in part the famous six degrees of separation).

I shared part of my journey with the journalist and her father and found she worked for the Los Angeles Times and was visiting the UK. In turn he was Irish and I’d lived in Dublin for three years so there was an enjoyable chat about that too. There were lots of other links. Emails were exchanged and will presumably be followed up.

All this was pure serendipity and it made me wonder why more of this doesn’t go on, particularly as it’s obvious there are connections everywhere (they normally just remain hidden). Thinking about this one specific occasion, the conversation ingredients were:

  • Speaking up, participating or initiating
  • Finding an exciting and perhaps unusual topic to generate interest
  • Letting conversations go anywhere (there will be rabbit holes of course, you can always double back)
  • Keeping the atmosphere light and friendly, with no one trying to impress or dominate
  • Allowing people to open up in the ways they like best
  • Developing an atmosphere of ‘play’

What about the physical circumstances?

A small group of people all waiting, near to each other and with nothing much else to do, open to relieve (perhaps) some boredom.

None of this seems special.

It’s a perennial topic of how you can stimulate similar sparky conversations in the (more formal) workplace to encourage innovation and creativity. We can all do it easily out of the workplace. So maybe we need to create sub-environments in the workplace as a sort of halfway house? I mean more than the standard internal coffee bars or similar which can sometimes seem a little forced.

Any thoughts or details of attempts in this direction?

A New Kind Of University

I’ve written previously about interdisciplinary mindsets so was interested to read about a new breed of university in The Times (paywall unfortunately).

I’m a product of the UK educational system; A levels at grammar school, university degree via maths/physics modules and then a doctorate in high energy physics. This lead on to further academic research and later transitioning to government and then commercial research management. I developed tools during the first phase of my career that were primarily technical (although international collaboration was also a strong feature). Moving to the other sectors, softer skills became increasingly important mixed with an awareness of (rather than detailed knowledge of) rapidly developing technologies. More and more a big picture outlook was required but I always had the feeling that I was looking at the world through a much narrower ex-physicist’s eyes.

How would it be different if one started with a big picture outlook, emphasising connections to different disciplines? This seems to be the idea behind The London Interdisciplinary School (LIS).

The development of a new kind of university was possible due to the widening of the legislation that allows institutions to award their own degrees. The political motivation for this change was the thought that the current university system was too confining and even acted like a ‘cartel’.

One aim of this new breed of university is to break down the barriers between the arts and sciences and to move away from the model of (often) large class sizes and relatively low staff contact time. Another radical departure is how they choose applicants (traditionally it has been through exam grades plus interviews). Now they can drop the customary A level requirements and rely instead on two very detailed interviews (allowing a much better understanding of backgrounds). This approach benefits students who come from deprived circumstances and may not have strong or even any A levels. However they may have a strong motivation and drive to help improve inequality for example.

The problems/topics addressed in the courses seem very challenging; climate change, inequality, sustainability and so on where a multidisciplinary approach is essential. I guess this means seeing the ‘problem’ from many different points of view and using a broad mixture of techniques to address/improve it. To this end, students learn qualitative and quantitative techniques such as survey design, statistical analysis and coding.

It sounds an interesting experiment. It reminds me of this quote:

“Requirements are actually Hypotheses and your Projects are really just Experiments. Realizing this should be liberating.” – David Bland

Two Feynman Courses on Physics

Feynman at the research meeting in Wangerooge in 1988 (see here)

I started out my career as a theoretical physicist and I’ve written a number of blog posts relating to this topic and period. The most popular have been those that featured Richard Feynman (I have an incidental connection to him as I co-organised the last conference he spoke at, see picture above).

I’ve recently come across some lectures of his that I wasn’t aware of, one set from the 1960s, the other from the 1980s. They are both quite technical, the former aimed at general and research scientists and the other at postgraduate physicists.

However, even if you do not have this specialised background, it may be interesting to take a quick look. The lectures are mainly of historical interest but still fascinating as they give an insight into the unique way that Feynman thought about things.

Feynman Lectures given at the Hughes Corporation
These are pdfs of notes taken by John Neer, who attended a course Feynman gave to general scientists at the Hughes Aircraft Corporation during 1966-71. How the notes came about is explained here.

Screenshot of website, see here

The course covered

  • Astronomy, Astrophysics, and Cosmology (224 pages)
  • Relativity, Electrostatics, Electrodynamics (209 pages)
  • Quantum Mechanics and QED (314 pages)
  • Molecular Biology (65 pages)
  • Mathematical Methods in Physics and Engineering (163 pages)

They reflect the ideas and understanding of these areas at that time and there have obviously been many developments since.

Desciption of Volume 3 of the Hughes Lectures

Sample page from Volume 3

These physics lectures can be seen alongside the very beautiful digital version of the famous undergraduate course he gave at Caltech (entirely free and available here).

Screenshot of main web page for the Caltech Feynman Lectures

Feynman Lectures on the Strong Interactions given at Caltech
This was an specialist research-level course he gave at Caltech towards the end of his life (he died in 1988). The notes were taken and collated by James Cline and are available as a free pdf (see here).

“These twenty-two lectures, with exercises, comprise the extent of what was meant to be a full-year graduate-level course on the strong interactions and QCD, given at Caltech in 1987-88. The course was cut short by the illness that led to Feynman’s death. Several of the lectures were finalized in collaboration with Feynman for an anticipated monograph based on the course. The others, while retaining Feynman’s idiosyncrasies, are revised similarly to those he was able to check. His distinctive approach and manner of presentation are manifest throughout.”

To give a feel of the technical level, see the screenshot below. They’re interesting as they also include some research problems he was interested in at the time.

Contents of the Feynman Course on the Strong Interactions

If any of the above sounds interesting but unintelligible/daunting, some excellent preparatory reading at a lucid and descriptive level is provided by:

QED – The Strange Theory of Light and Matter is a fascinating book by Feynman originally published in 1988 that focuses on the breakthrough in the understanding of the interaction of light and matter (new edition with intro by Anthony Zee published in 2014). Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 (together with Schwinger and Tomonaga) for this achievement. The book (aimed at a popular audience) also mentions the successful extension of these ideas to the other known interactions and particles. After reading this, you could then try

Lectures on Particle Physics by David Tong of Cambridge University (free pdf)
The four (fully up-to-date) lectures cover, using few equations; quantum fields, the strong and weak forces and ‘things we don’t know’.

Researching Time and Life

I’ve written recently on the conundrum of time (as viewed across many disciplines, covering both the arts and sciences) so was fascinated to read that a nearby university has been successful in winning a large grant to research this topic. From their website:

“The University of Surrey has received its largest ever philanthropic grant, funded by the John Templeton Foundation and worth US$3m (£2.1m), to lead a major new research project. The project will focus on the fundamental nature of time and its potential to reveal both scientific and philosophical insights into the quantum world – whose implications for life itself are explored in the new field of quantum biology.”

The public outreach activities sound quite exciting and it could be interesting to participate in some of them, so I’ll be monitoring news and progress.

What is quantum biology? A clear and detailed overview (from November 2018) is given here:

“Biological systems are dynamical, constantly exchanging energy and matter with the environment in order to maintain the non-equilibrium state synonymous with living. Developments in observational techniques have allowed us to study biological dynamics on increasingly small scales. Such studies have revealed evidence of quantum mechanical effects, which cannot be accounted for by classical physics, in a range of biological processes. Quantum biology is the study of such processes, and here we provide an outline of the current state of the field, as well as insights into future directions.”

And from the conclusion to this paper:

“The first book on quantum biology is entitled ‘Physics of the mystery of organic molecules’ by Pascual Jordan. Since its publication in 1932, however, many mysteries about the nature of life remain. It is clear that coarse-grained classical models fail to give an accurate picture of a range of processes taking place in living systems. The matter of ongoing debate
then, is the extent to which quantum effects play a non-trivial role in such biological processes.”

A popular science book is also available: Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology.

Brain Filler and Blogging

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”― Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet

I’m reviewing how I take notes and jottings as there’s certainly room for improvement. The situation is summarised by this graphic:

I use a time-varying collection of apps to help me, this is sometimes advantageous (offers new insights) but often a hindrance (finding information across various apps is time-consuming and annoying). What I need is a simpler system that is supported by a few chosen apps.

It’s not helped that there is currently a flood of note-taking apps and many of them are excellent. The pace of development is quite frenetic so it’s easy to get distracted by the latest must-have features. An informative and balanced overview of the note-taking landscape can be found on the site of Steve Zeoli.

I have a memory of someone saying focusing time on apps is easy and fun and but is low hanging fruit, the real gains come from overall strategy and habits not short term tools and tactics. That might be a bit extreme but it does make a good point. Anyway, this topic has lead to a number of very interesting sounding courses (see Forte Labs and The Sweet Setup for good examples, there’s also a lot of helpful information freely available there).

Regarding usefulness of information and knowledge, for me this currently revolves around assembling info to support my writing/blogging and also collating info on realising various personal projects. The first is creative (so a network of loose links is handy) whilst the latter is more pragmatic and focused.

A separate matter is gaining insights from previously created work that was itself based on research and thinking. I have been blogging for over 10 years now and have published over 650 articles (with over 200,000 views). However a lot of this material I’ve forgotten about which seems a pity, especially as some older articles get regularly rediscovered by readers and are presumably still interesting/useful.

As certain themes persist and develop over time, a blog may not be the best way of bringing this all together (you can set up categories and keywords as I have done but this is still not ideal). A slowly developing/emerging website might be more appropriate along the lines of the ‘digital gardens’ that are being talked about.

An interesting article on this is from Maggie Appleton, which gives a brief explanation plus some details on implementing them with currently popular programmes:

“Gardens are…
a) Explorable, rather than structured as a strictly linear steam of posts. This is usually achieved through deeply interlinking notes where readers can navigate freely through the content.
b) Slowly grown over time, rather than creating “finished” work that you never touch again. You revise, update, and change your ideas as they develop, and ideally find a way to indicate the “done-ness” state to your reader.”

She’s also written an interesting article on the history of digital gardens.

So I’m considering starting a project on reviewing all that I’ve done and extracting and pulling together the most useful/important strands (even if only for my own use and satisfaction). This is very much a research project, just playing around with options and ideas at present. But it’s clear that having a solid approach to so-called personal knowledge management would be helpful and perhaps even key.