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.

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