posted 10 Jul 2009 in Volume 12 Issue 8
Q&A: David Gurteen
The art of the knowledge café
David Gurteen provides insight in to the topics discussed at his recent
For regular readers of IK, David Gurteen and his work with the Gurteen Knowledge Community and associated cafés, will be a familiar subject.
Gurteen has been organising and running open cafés in
The cafés provide a relaxed, informal setting where people can get together and have open discussions with contemporaries from all manner of businesses and backgrounds. The talks are not ‘lead’ or influenced by a facilitator (although Gurteen or another host will introduce the proceedings) and people can dip in and out of the discussion as they choose.
Gurteen also runs masterclasses on how to organise such cafés and implement them within the working environment. The focus is very much on embracing – and making space for – collaboration, knowledge sharing and conversation, without making people feel like they are being forced to get involved, or are enforcing a particular pre-determined argument.
David’s most recent knowledge café was held at the British Dental Association in
Tell me about your recent knowledge café; was it a success?
“It went amazingly well. We had about 60 people, which is a good number. At the outset, I had planned to discuss the history of the knowledge cafés – why I began to run them and some case studies of how they’ve been used in different organisations, before moving on to the main theme: ‘How can the knowledge café be used for good business purpose within organisations?’.
However, what was interesting – and which happens at a lot of the cafés – was that the group moved away from this topic slightly and honed in on one particular area. They got much more engaged with the importance of conversation in general.”
So, what were people talking about?
“Mainly, the importance of trust and respect. And they also got into the significance of actual physical space to talk – whether at an organised café, or even people meeting at the water cooler. The discussion was much more about the actual barriers to conversation, rather than how you might use a café to enhance conversational techniques.”
What were the main barriers to conversation?
“People pointed to a lack of trust or time to speak; people working in siloes; people sitting next to each other but not talking – and communicating by e-mail instead. Also, for example, eating a sandwich at their desks rather than going for lunch with a colleague.
Some participants felt that the senior management at their organisations didn’t see the importance of conversation and wasn’t allowing time, or placing any value on it.
There was a whole range of issues and barriers, but importantly everyone was really engaged and there were lots of different perspectives and angles on the topic, so it was one of the better cafés that I’ve held.”
Often events such as this can end up being led or dominated by one person. How do you encourage the quieter people to have their say?
“The one thing I try not to do is to control it. If people just want to come along and listen then they can. One participant who came to this café chipped in at the end to say that she never usually spoke at these things. However she had become really engaged with the conversations, having spoken with some interesting people during the ‘speed networking’, and ended up contributing a lot.
That was lovely as it sums up what I’m trying to do with the cafés – which is to make it ‘safe’ for people like that to speak up. You still get individuals who dominate, but when I’m doing the café, I spend a lot of time walking around the room, looking at the body language and seeing if people are getting heated, or if someone’s overly dominating. The open cafés are fairly ‘self-selecting’, so the people who come have all made the decision to join in, rather than being made to. Everyone likes to talk, and even the dominant people will take time to be reflective and have a break from discussion.”
It sounds like a good formula
“I still have to pinch myself at times as it’s such a simple process, but every time I do the cafés, people seem to love them. I love them, they work well, and I get a lot out of them. I think a lot of people, like myself, have been on workshops where people have been forced to feed comments back to the room, or there’s been lots of writing on flip charts. People like me are disillusioned, or even angered, with the way that a lot of traditional workshops are organised, so the cafés are a nice change.”
What ideas did people have for breaking down the barriers discussed earlier?
“At one table, they were talking about ways of encouraging conversation – such as organising coffee mornings and ‘brown bag’ lunches – basically finding ways to encourage conversation in the company without making it seem like something out of the ordinary. Someone from the host organisation said that they had tried to do an early morning breakfast meeting, but nobody used to turn out for them. So they effectively remarketed them into ‘charity breakfasts’. You paid a couple of pounds for your coffee and croissant, the money went to charity, and you had a conversation. That worked really well because people saw a purpose to it and the conversations happened almost as a by-product.
We also talked about space. Again, in lots of organisations, people used to talk at the coffee machine, or call at someone’s desk on the way, to have a coffee and chat, but for some reason management have done something that’s stopped them doing that.”
Do you think it could be the opinion that if you’re away from your desk then you’re not doing any work?
“If you’re sitting at your desk looking at your PC then you’re seen to be working, even if you’re playing a game. But if you’re away from your desk, talking, certain managers will see that as being unproductive. It’s always an issue and it came up at the workshop. Often, indirectly, it’s the mindset of the managers.”
How far do you think that our reliance on electronic communication is also affecting the problem?
“People can tend to be lazy these days and are much more likely to send an e-mail when really – if the person sits just around the corner – they should walk round, or pick up the phone. Psychologically e-mail makes us think we have achieved something. If we fire off a request to someone, that’s one thing done and we move on to the next thing. If we pick up the phone to talk to them, then they might not be there, or it might take longer. But the conversation on the phone is as much about building the relationship. Then, you end up talking about other things, which might never have been discussed otherwise. Or they might tell you about the latest rumour that’s going around. It might not seem important, but it’s all these little micro conversations that you tend to pick up through talking face-to-face. It’s just not the same with e-mail.”
To what extent are organisations losing valuable tacit knowledge as a result?
“There’s no real answer, or measure. I think they’re hugely losing out, but it has no real meaning. A lot of the time – and I see the conversations myself – it’s more about improving people’s understanding of what is going on around them. A lot of the time we don’t understand what’s happening in our organisation, or other people’s business roles. We accumulate lots of facts and information, but we’ve never really figured out its significance.
We tend to go down well-trodden paths in our minds – and it’s only when we actually speak to someone that we realise that – for example – the product from a competitor has the potential to affect our business in the future. It’s all about this kind of insight.
Too often, we’re making business decisions – whether small or large – based on a very poor understanding of what’s going on. So, often they’re quite weak decisions. We end up doing the wrong things incredibly well. I often think it’s better to do the right things, actually rather badly, than doing the wrong things, well. Conversation helps us to better understand the world and, therefore, make better decisions.”
Tips for implementing your own knowledge café
What resources are needed to run a knowledge café?
A group of people;
A facilitator or host;
A room with plenty of space;
Tables and chairs to seat about five people per table.
Aim to create a nice ambience – you don’t need to have lots of ‘props’ in the room. The main thing is to provide an informal, hospitable environment in which people will feel comfortable and unthreatened..
A café normally runs for between 90 minutes to a couple of hours;
25 to 35 people is a good number;
Any subject can be addressed;
Explore questions that matter to the participants;
Normally explore only one theme, and pose one question;
The role of the facilitator
Facilitator need not be a specialist
* Nor disciplined in facilitation;
* Simply a good listener and chairperson skills;
Facilitator should not take a lead in the discussions;
Should wander around and listen into the groups;
Should listen out for problems and remind people gently of the rules of ‘dialogue’.
Working with the individual groups
Don’t appoint a leader or chairperson;
Everyone should be equal and fully engaged in the conversation;
Don’t appoint a note taker;
Anyone can make their own notes if they want to;
People share their perspectives with the group, only if they wish to.
The objective is to hold a group conversation, so the facilaitor needs to work with this in mind. They shouldn’t play the expert or attempt to lead the dialogue, and should try to steer clear of getting involved in the discussions wherever possible – while also encouraging people and providing guidance where necessary.
Source: Notes taken from slides distributed at David Gurteen’s recent Ark Group masterclass on Implementing a Knowledge Café. For more information visit: www.gurteen.com/
David Gurteen is founder of Gurteen Knowledge. For more information on his knowledge cafés, visit: http://www.gurteen.com/