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.

Communication and Academia

There is a revolution going on, a paradigm shift, a significant event in the story of humanity. We have found ourselves living in the information age and as institutions and as individuals we are struggling to come to terms with what that means.

It isn’t so very difficult in itself. The new communications technology has made everything much simpler. The problem is how to rid ourselves of the old ways of doing things, the old ways of thinking about things. All organisations are affected by changes in the way that information is stored and exchanged but the ones that need to do the deepest thinking about what the new circumstances mean are the ones whose biggest concern is information. One of these is higher education.

Only two decades ago information was a scarce commodity. That meant that for an academic the bookshelf in his or her office was a major component of the working toolbox. It also meant that the information in his or her head was a major component of the toolbox. It was not so many decades earlier, right up to the 1960s, that the lecture was the main way that an undergraduate student could obtain information but books became cheaper and more easily available and the lecture became less important as an information source. Instead, it became a way for the student to experience the lecturer’s mind in action as it grappled with the problems in the subject matter. The change was subtle, almost unnoticed, which is why the transition was achieved smoothly. However, this time the paradigm has shifted much further and things need much more fundamental reconsideration.

Bill Gates has told us that the days of the university it are necessarily numbered. He is wrong. But, it is an easy mistake to make if you think that education is all about information.

Of course, you do not need a university to disseminate information but you do need one to create and propagate knowledge and understanding. Knowledge is created by dialogue and knowledge is propagated through dialogue. It is not created by solitary individuals beavering away in isolation. I read some papers on a topic, realise that there is more to said, a concept that needs further examination, another point of view to be considered and so I come to write my own paper. And, knowledge is not propagated through monologue. I say something to my student and his reply indicates that he has not understood so I ask him a question, add some further information, offer a different point of view and slowly the process of understanding comes about for him and, very often, I will gain further insight myself because in the teaching process I have been challenged to look at the matter from a different angle. Always, the best way to learn something is to teach it.

Universities are funded because they teach and because they create new knowledge. It is only recently that educators have come to the realisation that you can teach a topic more effectively by giving students some information and then having them discuss it between them in a structured way – what it means, what the consequences are, how it might be applied and so on – than by just standing in front of them and subjecting them to a deluge of facts. Some academics have still not grasped the point. But, effective teaching is one of the benefits that society expects from the university in return for funding.

The other benefit that society expects is the creation of new knowledge. However, the paradigm of university research is an academic who sits in a silent room for months on end working on a topic which he or she does not discuss with anyone and eventually produces a paper which is of no interest to anyone in the world apart from a handful of people who happen to have the same obsession. Of course, not all academic research is like this and the proportion which is like this varies from discipline to discipline but this scenario is very common.

The university needs to ask fundamental questions of itself about its role in society. If the university is there to teach and create new knowledge then it must do so effectively. It must teach students effectively and it must create new knowledge that is significant. It can do both of these much better if the institution thinks of itself as a centre for dialogue. Students who learn through collaboration with other students are being taught effectively and they are learning a skill which will be useful to them for ever. Academics who engage in dialogue, perhaps working collaboratively, will be more effective at producing papers that are significant for a wider audience.

I don’t just mean that academics should write for a wider audience of academics but that they should be able to engage with serious practitioners as well. As it is, for example, how many people in business ever read an academic journal concerned with their specialisation? The answer is, very few.

It has been remarked before that academics are reluctant to use the new media such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook or Linked-In. Younger people, unhampered by ideas about how things should be done, quickly find the benefits of these as tools for discussion and problem solving while older people often find it more difficult to see the potential. Yet these tools open up possibilities for dialogue that is wider and potentially more fruitful than has ever been possible before.

When there is a paradigm shift institutions have to seize the opportunities or die by a thousand spending cuts.

Information Sharing and the Fear of Chaos

One facet of knowledge management which can readily make a large difference to the efficiency of an organisation is the sharing of information. However, there are a number of commonly occurring problems which arise when managers try to create a culture where information sharing is part of everyday activity.

A few years ago I found myself in a working as part of a team in the IT department of a largish organisation. Some of the everyday duties of a number of people in three different teams could have been made dramatically more efficient if all of them were able to access the information that already existed. One person had a database which was useful to everyone that she kept privately to herself. Another person knew of documents created by a predecessor in the job that would be of use to another team. One team had access to technical information that would be of use to another team, and so on.

I proposed setting up a folder on the drive shared by all the teams involved with an html page in the root where there would be a brief description of each document with a link to it. Once set up, the maintenance of the ‘database’ would take minimal time and have no other cost implications.

When I asked people about sharing the information that they had, most of them thought that it was a good idea though none of them thought that the sharing should be given any priority. In other words, they were happy if I did the work but were not willing to do it themselves. This attitude reflected the culture of the organisation which was good natured but little thought was ever given to knowledge sharing of knowledge transfer.

However, there were others who had more serious reservations. They asked who would be ultimately responsible for the database and suggested that there might be false or damaging information creeping into it unless it was tightly controlled, and no one had the time to do that. They went on to say that probably many of the documents in the database would be out of date, could be misleading and no one had time to check them and correct or rewrite them if necessary. These objectors were mostly team leaders or others who had responsibility for the workings of these teams.

Whenever change is proposed, however minor it may be, there are always those who look for the disadvantages and emphasise them over any possible gains. In this case the objections came from a fear of loss of control over subordinates and a fear that blame might accrue to them in some unforeseen way. These objectors felt that a lack of information sharing and the resulting ignorance, costly in time and in the degraded quality of the service provided, was preferable to the risks that might be introduced by trusting employees to make their own decisions about what information was worth sharing. It was true that some documents were out of date and that some of them might contain inaccuracies but I pointed out that, nevertheless, making the information available did not make the situation any worse than it already was and it offered obvious benefits.

Of course, if the organisation had already had a culture where information was routinely shared, we would have been encouraged to set up a wiki on the intranet. In this case, it was so difficult to have information made available on the intranet, unless for a very small and select group of people, that no one thought that it was worth the expenditure of time and effort.

It is generally true that information is not shared more within organisations because of a blame culture, because of a lack of trust in employees and because of a fear of chaos. If the knowledge asset is to be used effectively in many organisations, these are among the issues that have to be addressed and the culture changed. To facilitate better knowledge management it is not only attitudes towards knowledge itself that have to be addressed.