Rethinking The Benefits Of Conversation In Business

Recently I attended a workshop on ‘Implementing Knowledge Cafes‘ run by David Gurteen. The workshop was held in the very pleasant Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) building near Embankment in London.

I’ve been to a number of David’s free knowledge cafes in London over the years and have also written about them (Arup and BT Tower). They’re always stimulating affairs as well as being excellent for networking.

My interest in the workshop was to get the underlying thinking behind the ‘cafe approach’ and to understand better the real-world applications (these aspects are only briefly covered in the free events). I’d then be in the position to try out a ‘knowledge cafe’ with my own customers eg as a fresh way of addressing a business issue where standard techniques hadn’t worked or were too limiting.

One of the original motivations for developing the cafes was that many business communications revolved (and still do) around slides and ‘talking at people’ and these can often be ineffective. So, motivated by ideas from Theodore Zeldin and others, the productive role of conversations became highlighted.

So, how can we better use conversations for business advantage?

One immediate problem is that conversations are usually not regarded as something critical in business. In fact they’re often viewed as just relaxation or a distraction and thus incidental. This is in marked contrast to our personal lives where conversation can often play a critical role, both for understanding things better as well as for motivation. So there’s an interesting and rather unnatural dichotomy here!

David then went through his set of tools, techniques and experiences to extract value from conversations in a business setting. Very illuminating!

There were a whole host of interesting points but two highly relevant and useful insights for me were:

  • It’s very helpful to differentiate between knowing more, understanding better and coming up with solutions and it may be good to focus on each separately.
  • It’s crucial to generate an environment where different viewpoints are welcomed and then explored – the best example was the day itself – but thought needs to be given to this as it won’t just happen.

I think this cafe approach and variations on it could have wide application and I’m planning some posts on this in the near future.

As a by-product of the day I started thinking about personal situations where the role of conversation had been especially and consistently productive. The best example I came up with was from my time as an academic. I spent two years as a Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Dublin. In my area of research, the main person at the Institute was Professor Lochlainn O’Raifeartaigh.

In hindsight, Lochlainn was permanently running ‘knowledge cafes’ (of a sort) without my appreciating it! On many occasions, I’d turn up for morning coffee (late starts for academics…) and a conversation would start in the kitchen/coffee bar on a research idea that someone found interesting. If productive this could easily carry on for hours with other people coming in, sometimes participating, sometimes just listening and then wandering out (creating a fluid, creative environment).

The aim was to get to the heart of things and not to just dabble on the surface and all views were welcome. I’d never experienced this way of working before and it was quite a revelation (of course there were also periods when you went away and carefully thought things through by yourself).

Lochlainn had perfected this group conversational style – he produced over 200 papers with over 60 collaborators and established a worldwide reputation for his precise and clear thinking. it would be interesting to see how elements of this could be transferred to a business setting.

Picture credit: see here.


  1. PM Hut says:

    Conversations are extremely critical to the profession of project management, since communication is at the heart of PM (some say that PM is 90% communication).

    I have published an article a couple of years ago on dealing with difficult conversations, that, in my opinion, complements your article by examining the scenario of having difficult conversations with difficult people (which is something you haven’t examined in the above post).

  2. Communication is incredibly important. I have been reading more and more about knowledge cafes and love the concept. Sadly, I feel like the critical reasoning skills that make these cafes so successful are disappearing. I see a lot of coworkers in their mid-twenties (I’m 26) that read one viewpoint and close their minds to opposing views because they trust the ‘expert’ that wrote it. What is the best way to open the minds of these people?

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