posted 1 Jun 2011 in Volume 14 Issue 8
David Gurteen details what happened when a conference became a knowledge café in
I recently participated in the Hong Kong Knowledge Management Society’s annual conference at the Langham Place Hotel in Mong Kok,
I spoke at the conference in 2010 and my presentation was well received – mainly, it seems, because my talk was down to earth and practical. Often, this is what people need.
Anyway, they decided to invite me back again this year and to do something brave: to turn the conference into a knowledge café.
You may not consider this too outlandish but it is a hard enough job convincing Western conference organisers to do this, never mind an Asian one.
First, Nicolas Gorjestani gave a keynote talk. I then gave a pitch on the role of conversation in business and explained the knowledge café process. We then took a break for coffee.
On our return, we had eight ‘conversation leaders’, standing in line. These were past MAKE [Most Admired Knowledge Enterprise] award winners. I said a few words of introduction and passed the mic along the line.
Each leader spoke for around three minutes, covering snippets of information about the KM initiative that had won the MAKE award.
In the room, we had eight round tables; one for each leader, with between five and eight people sitting at each one. Each leader now joined a table in the room.
They then had 40 minutes to talk about their project and to engage in conversation with the people they were sat with. Afterwards, I asked the leaders to move tables, and three or four people to change around at the same time.
The process was repeated once, so two rounds of conversation were held in total. I then brought everyone back together for about 15 minutes and asked them to share their insights with each other.
I would have preferred four or even five rounds of conversation and I would have loved to have brought everyone into a circle at the end to continue the conversation and share their insights. But we only had half a day, so in the circumstances this was a reasonable compromise.
There were a number of concerns among the organisers and leaders before the event:
The conversations would dry up;
Some people would dominate the conversations;
A facilitator would be needed at each table to encourage conversation and control things;
People would congregate on just two or three tables and thus some groups would be small, causing loss of face for those particular leaders;
Tables should be numbered and the speakers told which table to go to;
People would be upset that they could not freely choose their tables; and
If an English-speaking person sat at a table then the Chinese speakers would be forced to speak English, which would stifle the conversation.
I assured them that none of this would happen and I was right. I also had breakfast with the leaders to talk things through so they felt comfortable.
Les Hales, who was one of the organisers and instrumental in inviting me over to run this café, wrote this in a pre-conference briefing:
“In a presentation there is formality. The speaker is mainly talking, and the participants listening. Usually Q&A, often a very interesting part of the presentation for both the speaker and the audience, is either restricted to a few minutes, or doesn’t occur. A KNOWLEDGE CAFÉ IS INFORMAL. The leader, while keeping in charge of the conversation, encourages Q&A as part of the presentation of his/her case study. Being a small group encourages encore participation, not just passive listening. Conversation should not be discouraged as it is the basis of knowledge sharing. At a conference we talk so that someone else can listen. In a knowledge café we talk so we can learn.”
Spot on Les, I could not have said it better myself.
This was a great event, which was much enjoyed. I only wish more conference organisers had the courage to take a similar approach.
David Gurteen is the founder of Gurteen Knowledge and a member of the Inside Knowledge editorial board. He can be contacted via his website at www.gurteen.com