posted 17 Dec 2009 in Volume 13 Issue 4
Coffee and conversation
Kate Clifton provides insight into a recent David Gurteen masterclass on implementing a knowledge café, including what to do on the day and why conversation is a business imperative
As organisations have responded to the tough times imposed by the global recession it would not be unrealistic to suggest that conversation has been firmly at the bottom of the business agenda. Times of financial instability, where management seeks to streamline operating processes and tighten purse strings, do not create the optimal atmosphere for a quick chin wag at the water cooler, or some relaxed yet insightful discussion at a colleague’s desk. The onus is very much on getting things done as efficiently as possible and now, more than ever, is not the time for ‘fluffy bunny’ approaches to knowledge sharing and collaboration. Furthermore, the wealth of technology at our fingertips – not least tools synonymous with the advent of Web 2.0 – might make a simple conversation seem positively outdated. With platforms such as Twitter enabling us to communicate with hundreds or thousands of people with a few key strokes, we have the potential to unlock a wealth of information and expertise. For many of us, it is easier to fire off a quick e-mail or post to a blog in order to to solicit responses to our queries or make our own opinions known. But at what cost?
Some might say that the ability to instantaneously share a viewpoint, or solve a problem, actually inhibits the ability to look at an issue from an entirely different perspective. This in itself fosters innovation and new, improved ways of working. When we type out an e-mail, we rarely come up with a message that is open to interpretation and dialogue. Rather, the focus is on obtaining a straightforward response, or communicating a development – as quickly as possible. And this is where the problem lies. In the words of
It was this type of thinking that David Gurteen drew comparisons with, at his recent masterclass on implementing a knowledge café in
Implementing a knowledge café
The beauty of the knowledge café, according to Gurteen, is its simplicity and flexibility. There are many different approaches that can be taken – for example, you might choose to have certain ‘props’ on hand for participants, such as notepads and pens. Some people may also choose to run cafes in the evening, over a glass of wine – rather than during core working hours.
Most important is that the location of the café creates the right ambience: one that is unthreatening and hospitable and, therefore, relaxes participants and encourages them to engage with one another.
Gurteen advocates using a decent-sized room with groups of approximately five people sat around tables that are not too large, so that everyone can be involved equally in the conversation. In groups much larger than this, there is a risk that more dominant personalities can take over the discussion. Similarly, if the total number of people in the café exceeds 40, it can be difficult to maintain the correct balance of participation without the use of microphones or a larger setting. Gurteen recommends inviting between 25 to 35 attendees.
The café process itself is split into several stages. First, the facilitator welcomes everyone to the event and takes a few minutes to make a short presentation to introduce the theme of the knowledge café – this stage should last no more than 15 minutes. It is also vital that the facilitator doesn’t impose their own agenda on the proceedings.
Following the introduction, the facilitator will pose an open-ended question for the groups to discuss. Any subject can be addressed as long as questions that really matter to the participants are explored.
At this point, the groups break off for 30 to 60 minutes to have their conversations. During this time participants have the option of moving to another table at certain points – the facilitator will pause discussions periodically (two or three times) to enable them to do so. The key here, says Gurteen, is not forcing people to move if they do not want to. For example, during the café that we took part in during the
I started in remained at the same table for the entire discussion process. What was surprising to many delegates was the fact that conversation flowed freely even following the group changes. After five minutes or so, participants were incredibly relaxed within their ‘teams’ and engaging in in-depth and involved conversations – almost to the point that when we asked to pause and move around, we all wanted to stay exactly where we were. After groups had moved around there was a slight lull, as people reacquainted themselves, but then everyone got back into the swing of things. This was actually discussed within our group and we came to the conclusion that the quality of the dialogue following the brief, slightly uncomfortable silence more than made up for it.
Throughout the group discussions, the facilitator will walk around the tables and listen in. Here, his or her role is not to lead or influence the discussion in any way, although if they do become aware of any problems, they are encouraged to remind people of the nature of dialogue – that it is “a frank exchange of ideas or views on a specific issue in an effort to attain mutual understanding” (Gurteen knowledge), rather than an unproductive, defensive exchange of opinions.
Equally, within the groups, there should be no leader or ‘reporter’ appointed as this will only serve to stifle conversation – and everyone should be equal and fully engaged. Similarly, people are empowered to participate as little or as much as they would like – they share their perspectives with the group only if they wish to.
The role of the individual at a café is of huge relevance to its outcomes. Gurteen cited another Theodore Zeldin quote at the masterclass, saying that people should “… be prepared to emerge a slightly different person.” The cafés are designed to encourage participants to:
See people with different views not as adversaries, but as resources from which we can learn;
Enter into open conversation;
Enter into more conversation;
Listen, more than speak;
Avoid position taking; and,
Avoid being too politically correct.
The knowledge circle
Once the tables have changed around for the last time, the entire group reassembles for an exchange of ideas arising from the smaller team discussions. Gurteen recommends that individuals bear in mind that their comments are intended for the whole group and not just the facilitator – who, at this point, should play a very limited role in proceedings. The way that Gurteen approaches this is simply to say ‘who would like to start?’ once the group is assembled, then let the participants take control. His advice here is that while the silence as someone ‘plucks up the courage’ to speak may seem like an eternity, it is actually never more than around 15 seconds – and the wait is usually worth it. And, following a brief ‘wrap up’ from the facilitator, that is it.
Why run a knowledge café?
For most knowledge workers, who are on board with the notion that dialogue outside of rigid meeting structures and official internal communications is more effective, the idea of the café makes perfect sense. People are likely to be more forthcoming if they feel that they are contributing ideas on their own their own terms, in a more informal setting. They will take the time to get to know one another’s character traits and build a rapport – thereby becoming more honest in the views that the put to the group.
Indeed, during our own discussions, many barriers to this type of knowledge exchange were mentioned – not least the silo mentality within many organisations, a lack of time and encouragement for collaborative activities and in more extreme cases, a sense that organisations even saw conversation as time-wasting. With that in mind, everyone agreed, it could be rather difficult to get management to buy into the idea of running knowledge cafes, when their benefits were so intangible. One attendee summed up the group’s feelings remarkably well at the end of the day, saying that he felt that he could now ‘put his fluffy bunny inside a trojan horse’, having explored the café process in more detail. Running a café may not be the silver bullet for all of your problems, but it will help in several areas that, by extension, improve the way in which the business works. These might include:
Surfacing hidden problems and opportunities;
Encouraging knowledge sharing and informal learning;
Improving decision making and innovation;
Addressing disengagement and lack of voice;
Helping people make sense of the world;
Helping people feel a sense of ownership;
Retaining talent – may people feel disengaged when working in siloes; and
Reducing dependence on external facilitators.
The cafes can also serve to document or replace processes where many people or departments have a input, such as:
Being included as part of a presentation;
Gleaning feedback on policy documents;
Replacing a series of interviews;
Being used within a collaborative writing effort; and,
Being implemented as part of a meeting to present future plans or strategy.
Masterclass participants also suggested using cafes as part of an organisational merger – to encourage staff from the different businesses to interact with one another, or during rebrands – for example, to brainstorm brand values or company marketing messages.
The Inside Knowledge team would love to hear your views on the potential pros and cons of implementing a knowledge café at your organisation. Or, if you have already done so and would like to share your story, do get in touch.
For more information about the Gurteen knowledge cafes, visit www.gurteen.com.
The knowledge café
Selling to senior management
Start with the business problem, not the café;
Focus on important business issues;
Don’t assume managers will not buy-in if there is no hard business outcome; and,
Find a good reason to run a knowledge café for the managers.
Café is about the transfer of tacit knowledge – not making tacit knowledge explicit;
Recording can stifle the conversation;
Cafes are often best as part of a larger process;
Avoid disrupting the conversation; and,
Participants should not record group notes.
Ideas for recording outcomes
Appoint an external person to take notes;
Capture one item from each person and collate;
Encourage people to blog the session;
Audio capture and transcription; or,
Source: Gurteen Knowledge