Knowledge Cafes with David Gurteen

On Tuesday, 13th December, I attended a workshop run by David Gurteen of Gurteen Knowledge on the subject of Implementing Knowledge Cafes. I have attended public cafes in London organised by David Gurteen and I have always found them to be immensely stimulating so I was keen to find out how I could organise an event like this myself.

David describes how he came to formulate his knowledge cafes. He says that at one time he was involved with seminars that consisted of a ‘death by PowerPoint’ presentation followed by questions. Often the speaker would speak for too long so there was no time left for questions. After the seminar everyone would go the pub and just talk. David noticed that the best part – most enjoyable, most productive – of the event was the discussion in the pub and he wondered how he could make a whole event as good as that. He used the American ‘World Café’ as a model and adapted it.

The knowledge café has very little structure. It is an event that usually takes about 2 hours or so where 20 to 30 people meet to have conversations with each other. It begins with a keynote speaker talking about a topic. The delegates sit in groups of 4 or 5 people round a circular table or in in a circle of chairs. The speaker is briefed to speak for five minutes and is allowed fifteen at the very most. Usually the speaker introduces a question which he may do by, for example, telling a story about a problem he or she has encountered. When the speaker has finished the delegates discuss the question in their groups. After about 20 minutes, the organiser asks some people to move to another group and the discussion continues with people bringing to their new group ideas from their previous group then after another 20 minutes the groups change again. When the third group discussion is brought to an end the furniture is rearranged by the delegates so that everyone sits in one big circle. The discussion then continues until time runs out.

One of the features of the café is that the emphasis is very much on the discussion between the people taking part. Delegates can make their own notes if they wish but nothing is formally captured. You can get a good idea of how the café works by looking at the slideshow on the Gurteen web site. The groups do not have any formal reporting back which tends to give a platform for dominant personalities. However, there is no output in the form of report backs or flip charts to take away because the point of the café is the generative power of the dialogue itself: the output is in the heads of the participants.

The philosophy of the café is that new knowledge is created by dialogue about existing knowledge. This insight is a profound one because the effectiveness of the café often surprises delegates who have not attended one before. In many work situations this creative dialogue is impeded. Firstly, it is impeded by the fact that often people work in functional silos or because of accidents of geography or office layout they just don’t meet the people who they could benefit from talking to. Secondly, it is impeded by the fact that most conversation in the work place is task orientated so there is not enough time for conversation that might lead to innovation. As David puts it, “… I would put communication first as connecting people, improved communication and better conversations ultimately leads to effective decision making and innovation”.

David tells how at the beginning he thought of the café as just a better way of doing a seminar presentation, as a way to share thoughts and information. Then, one day, he went to organise a café for the employees of an organisation. He quickly discovered that the café conversations were bringing to the surface all kinds of problems and suggestions about how the organisation was running. Managers from the organisation asked that the discussion be temporarily halted so that it could all be captured for more in-depth discussion and consideration after the café and David realised that the café was an even more powerful tool than he had previously thought.

I had only ever seen the café in action as a public event. In some ways, this is the purest form of the café because the delegates are self-selecting and from a variety of different organisations. This situation means that conversation is uninhibited by the constraints of organisational culture and hierarchy. The main thing that I took away with me from the workshop was ways in which the café format could be adapted to use within an organisation. For example, capturing ideas usually gets in the way of the dialogue but sometimes it is valuable to have some sort of formal capture.

In line with the philosophy that in the cafe ‘the knowledge is already in the room’ and that ’knowing more is not as good as the group understanding what it knows’ during the course of the workshop some useful points emerged which were contributed by the delegates. One point was that organisational hierarchies get in the way of creative conversation which must be sociable to be at its most effective. Another was that stories may be used to break through taboos and that breaking these taboos could be very fruitful indeed. A delegate described how he had used stories about corruption in general to address issues of corruption in organisations he was dealing with. If he had broached the subject head-on, he would have met with a brick wall but by getting delegates to discuss stories of corruption in general he found that they became more comfortable about relating these stories to what was happening within their own organisation.

There was some discussion about whether conversation needs to be face-to-face or whether it could be at a distance perhaps using social media. The consensus was that it would depend to some extent on the culture of the participants, some people taking to social media more readily than others, but that face-to-face conversation is preferable.

Following on from this topic, David talked about ‘flip-teaching’ and ‘flip conferences’. The thinking behind these concepts is that people do not learn well from sitting in rows in lecture theatres or seminar rooms listening to speakers. But, they do learn well from group activities and dialogue with others. In flip-teaching the students watch a video on You Tube at home before the class then the class time is spent in group activities based on the information in the video and group discussion, for example, how to apply the knowledge in the video to a specific problem. Similarly, in the case of a flip-conference, delegates would watch videos of keynote speeches on You Tube before going to the conference then spending their time at the conference discussing what they had heard. Surely, this has to be the right approach, especially for conferences. I wonder if any conference will be done in any other way in twenty years’ time.

Some books were recommended by delegates and these included:

  • Levine/Locke/Searls/Weinberger/Newmark/McKee, The ClueTrain Manifesto – the way to look at marketing in the age of the internet
  • Lynda Gratton, Hot Spots: Why Some Companies Buzz with Energy and Innovation – and Others Don’t

I have read the summary information on Amazon and I shall be reading them both as soon as a have some free time.

The day was a very worthwhile event. I now feel confident that I could organise knowledge cafes myself. It was also great to meet the other delegates, talk with them and learn from them.

One of the things that struck me about the day’s workshop was that although there was a wide spread of ages and of professional backgrounds all the delegates were the same type of person. Some were from academia, some from the public sector, some were self-employed consultants, some from large corporations and some from the voluntary sector. Yet all the people attending were intelligent, articulate, analytical yet people orientated, pro-active and concerned to make things better. They are the sort of people who you would want to come to your organisation as consultants because they would make a connection with your people quickly and be genuinely interested in understanding your organisation’s culture. Similarly, as employees they are the kind of people who are the most valuable employees, the glue of an organisation, because they will always expect the best of themselves and encourage and enable the best from their colleagues. In other words, the people who voluntarily attend knowledge cafes are just the ones who least need to and the world needs them to take the café idea out to the people who really need it – which is what this workshop was all about.

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