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Online 2011: Knowledge Cafe – encouraging conversations in the workplace

The last session I attended on the first day of Online was a “knowledge cafe”, run by knowledge management consultant David Gurteen, on the role of conversation in the workplace and how we could encourage more of it.

David started by explaining the rationale behind his knowledge cafes, which are mini workshops he has run in various locations and workplaces around the world. The idea from them came from attending various management seminars and lectures, and noticing that after they’d sat through the usual death-by-PowerPoint, all the attendees would decamp to the nearest pub – and the conversations that happened there were invariably the most valuable part of the evening. The idea behind the knowledge cafe is to facilitate that kind of post-lecture conversation, without having to sit through the dull and unhelpful lecture first.

David obviously believes very strongly in the importance of conversation. He quoted from the Cluetrain Manifesto: “Business is a conversation… Knowledge workers are those with the jobs of having the most interesting conversations”. Knowledge management is about understanding, not knowledge. We are more inundated with information than ever, but understanding has not increased. We understand the world through stories – storytelling was the first form of knowledge sharing. A true “learning conversation” must be a dialogue, rather than one person seeking to impart their ideas without learning anything in return.

The process for a knowledge cafe is as follows:

  • Set the context for the conversation, most usually with a speaker, talking for no more than 10 minutes
  • The speaker asks open-ended trigger question
  • Small group conversations at tables – max 4
  • Whole group conversation at table – max 20-30
  • Share actionable insights

The outcomes are intangible, but valuable nevertheless. Knowledge cafes allow you to engage with a subject, articulate ideas, gain better understanding of others, and strengthen relationships. These are all incredibly valuable outcomes, but unfortunately their intangibility can make knowledge cafes a hard sell to management, who will generally want to see more measurable outcomes!

Some common problems when running knowledge cafes are if the process feels too rigid, too much like work. For example if someone is sat opposite their boss, and thus feel inhibited from speaking their mind; or if people feel under pressure to report everything back once they are back at their desks. Issues like this would capsize a knowledge cafe, but the format is designed to avoid them.

After David had delivered his spiel about the purpose of and rationale behind the knowledge cafes, we split off into groups of four to discuss the talking point: what is the role of conversation in the workplace and how do we encourage more of it? We had 5-10 minutes per group to discuss this, then everyone had to move around to form new groups and speak to different people. We did this a few times, then all arranged the chairs into the room into a big circle, and chatted among the entire group about how we’d found the process, and what had come out of the conversations. Some of the points discussed:

  • How conversations were initiated in the workplace varied according to cultural differences. For example, one of the groups I was in discussed the differences in lunch breaks between England and France. A French member of the group discussed how appalled he’d been when he first came to England and saw people just eating lunch at their desks – in France, everyone takes a proper lunch break, and this is a great opportunity for conversations with people who you might not see ordinarily. He said he didn’t know how often he’d talk to people outside of his department without the opportunity presented by the social lunch breaks.
  • Physical space also makes a big difference. The trend for hot desking and open plan offices can encourage conversation, but there is also a need for private spaces. I mentioned my firm’s London office, which is entirely open plan but has phone cubicles for if you need to make a confidential phone call, and comfortable chairs set around the office with low screens around them, which allow up to 4-5 people to have a semi-private conversation. This seems like a really good compromise to me, and from the time I’ve spent in the London office I think it works really well.
  • Generational differences came up, with several people mentioning the trend for “generation Y / millennials” to have multiple conversations at once through different devices. There was a bit of debate around whether people who are simultaneously talking to someone in person, tweeting, and keeping an eye on the TV, can really be engaging in conversation. Are the millennials’ habits of using several communication channels at once harming their ability to concentrate, or are they just better at concentrating on multiple things at once as they’ve grown up with this kind of communication?
  • How do we encourage conversations without making them compulsory? Part of this comes back to cultural attitudes – if conversation comes naturally within your organisation then you probably won’t have a problem facilitating it, but if stilted meetings and solitary lunches at your desk are the norm, it will be very difficult to encourage people to have conversations without just ending up with more meetings.
  • Someone ventured the opinion that meetings are for discussion not conversation – the goal is to make a decision, so not conducive to free-flowing conversation. If this is the case, and I think it probably is, then how do we encourage conversations outside of the formal meeting structure?
  • Does twitter count as a conversation? Does email? Most of the group, including David, were of the opinion that if it isn’t face-to-face, it isn’t really a conversation. I disagree. I don’t think email really counts as a conversation, I think largely because it is asynchronous, and is designed to allow someone to impart big chunks of information – it isn’t designed around the free-flow exchange of ideas that defines a conversation. However, I do think talking on Twitter counts as a conversation. I’ve had plenty of fascinating conversations on Twitter, many of which have led to interesting projects and new ideas – the Library Routes project and the Echo Chamber presentation both arose out of conversations on Twitter.

Overall, I really enjoyed this session. The small group conversations were fascinating: changing groups several times meant that I got to talk to lots of different people within the room, and each of the groups I was in took a very different focus on the question – I never had the same conversation twice. I still don’t really know how much of this could be applied within my own work – the points above about cultural barriers seem very pertinent to the field I work in – but I certainly came away with a fresh perspective on the topic, and lots of ideas that would never have occurred to me without having spoken to some of the people in the group.


One comment on “Online 2011: Knowledge Cafe – encouraging conversations in the workplace

  1. […] David Gurteen is a well-known facilitator of knowledge cafés around the world. Borrowed from Woodsiegirl’s blog, David’s process goes something like […]

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