Podcast Episode: Knowledge Café
Category: Learning and development
What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.
DG - David Gurteen
DG Good morning. We’re not only going to talk about Knowledge Cafe, we are actually going to run one and get some experience of what it is all about. But let me start by telling you the story of how I started to run Knowledge Cafes, because Knowledge Cafes have been around for quite a while, probably since back to the early 90’s and have taken various sorts of forms and formats. I’ve got a particular format that I want to show you and then we’ll talk about some of the other formats as well, like a Word Cafe, but I particularly want to explain the ways that I run them.
The story goes back to September 2002, so back to seven or eight years ago now. I used to go up to London for some Knowledge Advisement Talks that were run by the City University Business School. There were three talks given in the evening, from I think about 6.30 to 8.00, something like that, I guess about an hour in length, typical sort of presentation, you know, 40 minutes in presentation, maybe 10 minutes or 15 minutes procure nay, and then we’d go down the pub afterwards. Some of these talks were very good, but some of them were dire - what’s that called, death by PowerPoint, chalk and talk and I’ve even heard it called zits and gits. It’s a little bit like now where you’re sitting there and I’m talking at you. Of course sometimes they would speak as they would have, you know, quite literally 178 PowerPoint slides and only 30 minutes to present, and they would insist on showing every single one. And on those evenings, what do you think was the best part of the evening? The pub, the conversation down the pub afterwards, and it wasn’t just that we were talking about other things, it’s where you take a rich topic like knowledge-management, often there’s more expertise in the room than in the so-called expert at the front of the room, and to really engage and get into some of the new answers on the topic, it requires conversation, so there’s a whole clamp-down of the whole chalk and talk, death by PowerPoint which was really a very bad one for knowledge-management practitioners to be adopting, so I wanted to do something different. I wanted to do something that was a lot more conversational. So I started to run my own little events in London, so back in September 2002 I think I had maybe 20 people to the first one, I’ve got one I’m running next Monday where I’ve got 120 pupils signed up to it. The reality is that only about 80 will turn up and it’s a bit large for a Cafe, but that has grown over the years and I’ve ended up running these Cafes you know one way or the other all over the world which wasn’t something which was planned, it was just my frustration with these as I say death by PowerPoint presentations.
So I’ll come back and discuss the process in a moment. Fundamentally what I want to do is just get you thinking about the role of conversation, not only in our business lives but in life in general. To make conversation is pretty fundamental to what it is to be human, and to extend the basis of the Cafe so that you could actually go away and run them for yourselves because the process is actually quite a simple one. You don’t need to be a professional or a trained facilitator to run them but I think in general just to get you to think about, if you think it’s important, if you agree with me, about how you could introduce more conversation into your organisations and the way you do business, just a quick agenda there, I won’t leave that out.
The very first thing I want to do is look at conversation because at the time I started the Cafes, it wasn’t just my frustrations with these presentations, I was starting to read about conversation. This was about the year 2000, and one of the books I was reading at the time was a book called The Cluetrain Manifesto. Anyone come across that - one or two, yes. It was, funnily enough, a marketing book and it was fundamentally predicting a circle web 2.0 where the web is going to move from a publishing paradigm to a 2-way paradigm to a conversational paradigm, so the book was very much about conversation but very much in a marketing context. It was written by three authors, one of them was David Weinberger, and somewhere very early on the book, he’s talking about conversation and he says this, he says:- “business is a conversation because as knowledge workers, quite literally that is our job to have interesting conversations”. And I had never quite thought of conversation quite like that before and, when I did, it kind of shook me up a little bit and I thought yes, that is what we do. You’re never taught how to have conversations, we just take it for granted, you know because that’s what it is to be human. So this was just a little wake-up for me, and this was a quotation I only came across a month or so ago, so this didn’t really play into some of my early thinking but in many ways this sums up I think what conversation is about. This is by a gentleman called Jay Cross, he’s an independent consultant, he’s quite a prolific blogger, he writes a lot of good stuff on his blog. But he said this, that conversation is the most powerful learning technology ever invented, that conversation carries news, creates meaning, fosters co-operation and sparks innovation. Encourage open, honest conversation for workspace design, setting ground-rules for conversing productively and making conversation into the corporate culture, spreads throughout the capital, improves co-operation and strengthens personal relationships. This, for me, sort of summed up the importance and sincerity of conversation and has built on to what David Weinberger has to say. Again, you know, if you’re a little bit like me, maybe not, but if you’ve taken conversation for granted, and you look at this and you say, yes, this is important.
And then this gentleman, Theodore Zeldin. Anyone come across Theodore? This guy is actually as crazy as he looks with the mop of white hair; I’ve met him a couple of times. He was 76 last summer and he has an event in Regents Park and it’s billed something like “Come along to Regents Park and spend the day having conversations with strangers”. He was bringing strangers together to have conversations. He does something called conversation dinners when he gets two strangers together to have a conversation over dinner and not only do they have a food menu, they have a conversation menu where they pick the items they want to talk about with their different courses. He wrote a little book in about the year 2000 simply called Conversation and, in that book, somewhere again not very far in the book, he says of conversation that conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits and that when minds meet they don’t just exchange facts, they transform them, they re-shape them, they draw different implications from them and they engage in new trends of thought. Conversation doesn’t just shuffle the cards, conversation creates new cards. It’s worth just stopping and just looking at those words there. When minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts. I’m sure you might remember if you go back to the turn of the millennium when the IT vendors were trying to sell their IT solutions and their knowledge-management solutions, and they would draw little mounted pictures where my head would look sliced open and your head would be sliced open and there would be lines of digits flowing between our heads as if that’s they way people communicate, you know with some sort of error correction protocol. It’s not like that when we have a conversation. We don’t exchange facts. Each and every one of you now is hearing something different; you’re making something different of what I’m saying. As it says here, you’re transforming what I’m saying, you’re re-shaping it, you’re drawing different implications from it and you’re engaging in new trains of thought. Some of you will be thinking, you know, I wonder what’s for lunch or whatever, you know, you’re all taking away some.thing just a little bit different. So, what he’s saying here is that conversation is fundamentally creative, that’s at the root of so much of our creativity. So says Theodore on conversation.
And then David Weinberger in The Cluetrain Manifesto again, given that I’m in knowledge-management, this suddenly had me in fits of laughter at the time:- “for all our knowledge, we have no idea what we’re talking about”. We might not agree that that’s true about us, but we all know a lot of people that we would say that applies to particularly well. I can remember in my past corporate life a lot of very articulate people who to my mind didn’t have a clue really what was going on in the world. We don’t understand what is going on in our business, in our market, in our world, and this was a key piece for me that knowledge-management shouldn’t be about helping us to know more, it should be about help.ing us to understand better. If you think about it, you know, this last 15 years or so, with the advent of the web and Google and Wikipedia, we have got unprecedented access to information and knowledge and not only have we got it through the web, you know, if you’ve got a Smart phone, you’ve got it at your fingertips all the time, which is, you know, unprecedented in the whole history of the world, you know, we’ve never had that ability. But are we that much more productive, are we that much more creative? I suspect you could argue that we are not, you know that we suffer from this thing we call information overload, that we actually feel quite stressed by it all. And so it’s not just about having access to more information, the fundamental issue is about understanding it better. And then he goes on to say that, as human beings, how do we understand things, and he says it’s through stories, and he doesn’t mean novels, he’s talking about the anecdotal stories that we tell each other. If you think about it, for the whole of human evolution, for the bulk of human evolution we certainly didn’t have computers and we certainly didn’t have paper, we certainly didn’t have papyrus and stone and clay. For most of human evolution, the way that knowledge was passed down was through stories, was through conversation. Any of you who know a little bit about the history of the Australian Aborigines, they passed down their culture and their laws for at least 30,000 or maybe 50,000 years. Now none of that was written down. When I read this, I thought well, how the hell do they know that? It seems a lot of their stories that have survived relate to animals that are long extinct, animals that can be identified but are actually long extinct, and to astronomical events that also can be quite accurately dated, so it’s quite interesting that that’s how they transferred their knowledge, through story-telling, through conversation, so, again, all these little things were just building up in my mind at the time as to why conversation was so important.
And Theodore, again, one of my favourite quotations around conversation was where he says the kind of conversation that he’s interested in is one where we are prepared to emerge a slightly different person. He’s talking really here about a learning conversation. I don’t know about you, but for most of my corporate life, the dominant style of conversation that I was familiar with was debate. Now it was intellectual debate where it was a situation where you were actually having a fight, having a fight, and one person wins and one person loses. What Theodore is talking about is something usually called dialogue which is much more about trying to obtain a mutual understanding throughout the topic rather than one where one wins and one view of winning out and one view of losing, so this whole concept of dialogue. And someone has done a lot of work in this area for quite a few years now, a gentleman called David Bowen, and I just borrowed a few books, some of them are based on principles of dialogue. I won’t go through them all; you’ll prob.ably find most of them relatively self-apparent. The one that I like actually, the one that interests me is the last one, that’s Search for the Underlying Meaning. Let me again tell another little story. Any of you remember the book from a few years ago, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus? I think it was that book, or a book very much like it, there were a few books with a very similar theme. There’s a story in there where a husband and wife are travelling home late one evening, they’ve been away for the day and they’re getting rather tired and they’re getting close to home and they’re chatting away, and, at one point, the wife says to the husband, she says “Would you like to stop for a coffee, dear”? And he says, “No, no, it’s okay, let’s press on, let’s get home”. And then he realises a few minutes later that she’s fallen silent and she’s not talking to him. Any of you ahead of me as to what’s going on here? Maybe the women are. And he says “What’s the matter, what’s the problem”? And she says “I wanted to stop for a coffee and you wouldn’t, you’re so selfish”. And he says “No, no, that’s not what you said. You asked if I wanted to stop for a coffee and I didn’t”. And she says “That’s right, you’re so damn selfish”. And they row. Now this isn’t a gender thing, we do it all the time; we often wrap our words in cotton wool, expecting the other person to understand the meaning of what we’re saying. Especially with figures of authority, we do that.
Have any of you read quite a recent book, it’s called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell? Have you come across this? Have you read the bit about the airline pilot? This is scary, this is the most scary thing, if you are scared of flying, put your fingers in your ears. There are several stories in there about analysing airline crashes because they’ve often got the voice log and they can listen in to it, you know play back the conversations that occurred immediately before the crash, and they’ve got several examples of when the co-pilot is actually literally afraid to tell the pilot that there is a problem or to tell the ground crew and the air controllers that there’s a problem because of the hierarchy, and they’ve gone on and crashed simply because of that failure. Also with the pilot, they’re wrapping their words in cotton wool. There’s one bit isn’t there about ice on the wings where the co-pilot should say to the pilot “Be careful, I’m a little worried, there’s ice on the wings and we should be taking off”! But what he says to the pilot is “Oh, that’s interesting, there’s a bit more ice on the wings than usual”. And so, I think again that dialogue is about trying to break down those barriers and make us look behind the words we use and to understand the intent. So, what I’m trying to get across to you there is a few things, I guess it’s just the importance of conversation and maybe just looking at conversation not necessarily in a new light but just recognising its importance. That’s what we do in our business lives, it’s a very important learning technology, it’s at the heart of our creativity, but the key thing is that it’s about understanding something and that understanding is more important that knowing more by dialogue. I think we still need the debate, although it can often descend into argument, a good debate can also get at the truth, but I think we need more balance between dialogue and debate.
So that was a lot of my kind of intellectual input into the Cafe. What I’m going to do now is move on and explain the process to you, explain how I’ve seen the Cafe used, explain some of the applications of the Cafe because it’s ended up being used in lots of different ways.
The first thing to say is that the Cafe is quite adaptable and can be run in different ways, so what I’m going to say to you is how I prefer to run the Cafe, for me the ideal way of running it. I talked earlier about the death by PowerPoint presentations, and initially the Cafe was about replacing or venting those sorts of presentations, so typically when I run a Cafe in London I invite a speaker, a public speaker, although sometimes the speaker could be me. But what I say to the speaker are two things, you know “Would you like to come and speak at my Cafe”? And they say, “Well, yes David but tell me a little bit more”. And I say “Well, there are two things you need to know. The first one is no PowerPoint slides, their faces drop because, you know, most people need the PowerPoint slides as much as a crutch for presentation.” And then I’ll say “I only want you to speak for five minutes”. And their faces brighten up because they realise that they only have to speak for five minutes without slides. Now, I’m lying to them on both counts, because I don’t mind a few PowerPoint slides, what I don’t want is 178 slides to go with the presentation. If they’ve got two or three slides to help them support their talk, that’s fine. And five minutes is actually quite short. What I’m saying is that I want it to be fundamentally short, so sometimes I give them five minutes. Sometimes if I know that they’re a provocative, entertaining speaker and they can do this without slides and they’re good, I will give them 30 minutes, I’ll give them longer, it just depends on the evening, how long we’ve got and the number of people, but fundamentally I want somebody to if you like see the conversation with a short presentation preferably without slides or with very few slides. So we have the speaker do that, they then simply pose a question to the group, and then we go into what I call Cafe mode, into conversation mode. And the way that works - one way is really very simple but, as I explain it, you will realise that there are a few subtleties to it that I have realised over the years are really quite important. The first seems to work best for somewhere between 20 and 30 people because it is very conversational and if you have more than 30 people you start to need microphones and things and it just destroys the dynamics of the conversation. So, I’d typically have people sitting four or five people per table. It works brilliantly when you’ve got the small round three-feet diameter coffee tables with 4 people per table. But it works fine like this, I’ve done it at conferences where you’ve got six, seven, or even eight people per table - it doesn’t work quite so well but works well with small numbers because if you’ve got less than four maybe the conversation will drop but if you’ve got as many as eight some people maybe don’t get to take part in the conversation. Four is a nice number, typically sitting close together, again why a Cafe works really well because there’s the body language, people can lean over to engage with the other person. So if I’ve 28 people, it’s seven tables of four - that’s a nice number. So, I would ask them to have the conversation at their tables, have the conversation say for 10 or 15 minutes, then I’ll simply say “Could a few people from each table move to another table”? Nothing more complicated than that. And a few people move and we have a second round of conversation, and we would do that two or three times. We then come back together at the end for what a I call a whole group conversation and again really that’s the importance of keeping the numbers low because if you’re trying to have everyone in the room have a conversation, you can really only have that conversation when you can hear each other. What I’ve learnt in doing the Cafes is that one of the things that works brilliantly well is what we’re doing here today, is that when you come to that whole group conversation, just pull these tables away to the side of the room and form a circle. Think about it, we could form a circle here quite nicely. When you’re in a circle, everyone can see each other, no-one’s sort of out of the conversation, I sit down as facilitator, I’m now part of the conversation and I’m not the expert or the teacher if you like at the front of the room. The circle works incredibly well. So, that’s the essence.
Let’s just go back through it because there are a few little things that I want to point out. You’re probably all familiar with workshops you’ve been to over the years. Often they get quite complicated and sometimes they can get quite controlling. And what I wanted to do with the Cafe was to very much mimic the sort of conversation that you would have down the pub where there are the minimum number of rules and you need quite a lot of room for freedom of action. So the first thing I say is “I don’t want you to appoint a leader at your table, and I’m not going to ask one person from each table at the end to stand up and report back”. The problem is when you appoint a leader at the table, they feel they need to lead and therefore control the conversation, and they start to tell you that that’s off topic and you shouldn’t be discussing that, when maybe going off topic for a little while and then coming back might actually be a good thing. Also, if that person gets to stand up, they rarely report back what has been said at the table, they report back just their view, their perspective of things. You’ve also got the issue that’s usually the most dominant person in the room who says I’ll be the leader, I’ll be the note-taker, and they tend to be the more controlling ones. You’ve also got the situation where at a table you’ve maybe got four people who don’t feel comfortable standing up and reporting back and now the problem with that is that the person who gets the short straw is no longer part of the conversation. They’re worried, they’re thinking about the fact that they have to make notes and make sense of what’s being said to report back. Even in the UK, that can be a problem. I’ve run the Cafes in South East Asia, in Asian, say Chinese, communities, and they would rather die than stand up and report back in the room the findings of a small group conversation, and standing up is not so easy for them given their upbringing and their culture. So, I’m trying to ensure that everyone in the room is equal. I don’t want anybody to feel that they’re in charge or leading, so it’s the conversation you have down the pub.
The other thing I don’t do often with workshops is have flip-charts. I’ve spent a lot of time writing things up on flip-charts. The workshop leader says to the group “We’ll get all this typed up and we’ll send it out to you on Monday”. And of course Monday comes and it doesn’t turn up. In fact, more often than not, it never turns up because nobody ever finds the time to type it up. So you spend all this time capturing it and nothing gets done with it. Or, if you do get it, you get it a week on Monday and, by then, you’ve forgotten all about the workshop and no-one ever looks at it. So, given that this is a replacement for, you know, presentations, you don’t try to capture a presentation, specifically at those sorts of Cafes, I don’t attempt to capture anything.
Now, I’ll talk a little bit later about how you can modify the Cafe and use the Cafe for different purposes where there is a need to capture anything. What I would say in general with the Cafe is that when you’re trying to just stimulate conversation to have a better understanding of the topic, you don’t necessarily need to capture anything as a group. I always say with the Cafes, the value in a Cafe is what each person takes away in their heads. If you want to make your own notes, that’s fine. I think the key thing about the Cafe to remember is for me the purpose here. It’s about getting a better understanding of a particular topic, of the topic itself, a better understanding of other people’s perspectives of the topic, in talking about the topic or the issue you get a better understanding of your own view because maybe you haven’t articulated it before, you start to build relationships with people by having conversations. I think if the Cafe is being run within an organisation, the fact that you start to build those relationships, the fact that I get to know how others see the world a little differently to me but that fundamentally it’s okay. It just needs a little working together over problems and issues to work them out because I understand the differences and I understand diversity and that’s a good thing so we’re much less likely to fight over something. So, that’s the essence of the Cafe.
There are 2 big issues that come up with the Cafe. One of them, the big issue is the need for outcomes. There are outcomes in the sense that I just described them but often, especially amongst hard-nosed business managers, those outcomes are not seen as useful. But let me come back to that because I talk about these managers and I talk about the outcomes as well. You’ll get a feel for the process and I’ve deliberately tried to keep it as simple a process as I can because it is fundamentally about conversation.
I’ve never tried running a knowledge cafe with two very diametrically-opposed groups that might be more likely to fall into argument or debate or some sort of power struggle. I think a lot of the time with the Cafes, the people who tend to come along are self-selecting so they tend to be the ones who are more imaginative and more open-minded. But a few people who have run the Cafes themselves and a few of the ones that I’ve run have been in organisations where there’s a stronger likelihood of there being clashes but there haven’t been. They’ve said to me that one of the things that makes it less likely is that you’re not actually looking within the Cafe to come to an agreement or to come to a hard outcome, and that takes the pressure off. Now people feel that they can relax a little bit more and be a little bit more open, and listen to people who have maybe got an opposing view. It doesn’t guarantee it but, in my experience so far, it has always worked. One of these days, it won’t, and I will have to learn about maybe what it takes, but it is interest.ing, you take away that pressure to have an outcome, to make a decision, and somehow the conversation flows a lot more.
My organisation invented this thing called Fertile Fridays, whole time-management stuff where you try and create time. I think what it is is about lodging a different template in your head because we all operate in strategic operational corporate environments especially those of us who work in the Council and there are formal processes, planning processes and other processes where the issues can be addressed but if you step out of that and go around having conversations with people I don’t expect there to be an outcome. I expect that to promote, as you said, better understanding and shape views that can then be taken back again to the more formal process. I think then that we would begin to see changes in behaviour, rather than sticking to the formal structural approach to creating planning systems, design or whatever, so that really chimes with me. And they’re actually taking people into a different physical space, a different physical space I think helps change the template people would normally lodge when coming into a strategic planning meeting.
I’ve run the Cafes on boats and in cafes and all sorts of places. Just another little anecdotal story - I ran a Cafe last summer in Amsterdam for a law firm, the first time I had done one for a law firm. The woman running it was a little bit nervous because she said the lawyers’ style of conversation was debate and I’m not too sure whether they’re going to take to it. I was a teeny bit nervous myself but not too much. It went really well and, at one point at the end when we were discussing how the Cafe had gone, one of the senior partners said this - I wish I had actually captured her exact words - but she basically said when she came in she started to have the conversation, she was in her normal conversational style, she was in debate mode, she had to win the argument, that was what she was about, she was a lawyer dammit - and then she said she remembered what I said about dialogue and Theodore Zeldin and said “Oh, you know, I don’t actually need to win here, there isn’t a need, you know, it’s not as if I’m fighting a law case here, this is a conversation”. So you let go of that need to win the argument. And she said “It was wonderful, it was just like a big weight off my shoulders, I could actually enjoy the conversation.” And, again, I can’t guarantee that that’s going to happen every time with others because we are all very different as human beings, we’re all very different. To me, that was an important little insight that people could do that.
Let’s look at some of the applications and answer these questions about outcomes as well. One of the things I’ve done, as you’ve probably noticed, I like to take photos of the Cafes I’ve run as you can see they’ve been run in different places. This was in Oslo a year or two ago and there was a lovely balcony with little round coffee tables and so we moved outside into the sunshine and the environment. It’s more likely to be a conversation we would have in a cafe or at the pub. I’ve talked about the outcomes, by and large you know these are the sorts of outcomes you’re looking at but they’re not tangible business outcomes, they are the sorts of outcomes that a lot of people don’t particularly appreciate within an organisation, they might well see a Cafe as a talking-shop.
I often do this as a whole one-day workshop when there’s more time to discuss some of these issues. If you think about it, there are lots of different ways you can start to apply the Cafe, lots of generic ways you can start to apply the Cafe and having conversations can be beneficial. But rather than dwelling on this, let me just give you a few examples, as I hope you can start to see how they can be used. This one was on a canal boat in Amsterdam, again a few years back. Very early on, I first ran the Cafes publicly, so people from different organisations, and very early on when I started running them I ran them for this organisation here in Zurich, it was the International Securities Network in Zurich, and I ran the Cafe as part of a day-long knowledge-sharing workshop that I was running, and I just ran the Cafe to introduce them to the Cafe and what it was about and conversation. This was the first time I had actually run one within an organisation. And one of the top.ics I used, one of the knowledge topics I used to get a conversation going was I simply talked a little bit about knowledge-sharing and I would say to the folks in the room “Okay, what do you think are the barriers to knowledge-sharing in our organisations and how might we overcome them”? That always gets a great conversation going because there are literally hundreds of barriers, you know, from knowledge is power to not enough time to poor technology. So that gets a great conversation going. This was the first time I had done it within an organisation, so I just changed the question and I said “What are the barriers in knowledge-sharing in your organisation and how might you overcome them”? Well, we got into the Cafe just a few minutes and one of the women managers said to me “David, we’ve got to stop”. And I said “What’s the problem”?, and she said “There are so many issues coming up that we’ve got to capture them”, because again I wasn’t capturing them. What I hadn’t realised was that there were three different groups, three different departments in the room and they didn’t normally talk to each other. They were talking to each other for the first time, and they were discovering you know somebody here, somebody here, they were discovering they were working with the same client and they were unaware of it. Two different people in two different groups discovered that they were working on separate reports for different clients but essentially the content of those reports was the same. All sorts of duplication on all sorts of issues was surfacing because they were talking for the first time. So, we stopped and in fact in this case this woman manager actually stepped out of the circle at the end and as we talked she wrote the issues up on a flip-chart so they were taken forward and acted on. But that was the first time I realised that the Cafe could have some very specific outcomes and I’ve started to run them now where I’ve modified them a little where rather than the outcome we’re looking for like being a better understanding of the issues, the outcome is about surfacing issues, you know, discovering the problems that exist in the organisation because often when people are working in silence even the managers are unaware of the problems. So that’s another application of the Cafe.
I often think the Cafe works best when it’s part of a larger process because there’s still this need for the more structured stuff that goes on in all the organisations. There was a woman who used to regularly come along to my London Knowledge Cafes so she got to understand what they were about. I can tell you exactly who this is, it is the National Audit Office in Folkestone - but they make sure that the English Government at least look after hard management I expect, and they wanted to do some experiments with social tools with blogs and reviews and what have you, and what she did, she designed a day-long effort where initially there were three speakers who talked about social tools. There was myself because I’m a big user of social tools, a guy called Lee Bryant who was a consultant who works extensively with tools, a woman called Marilyn Leask who was in local government and had a lot of experience with it, so we talked about what social tools were and how they could be used within organisations. And so there were three death by PowerPoint presentations at the beginning of the day, and then I ran a lunch Cafe and quite simply we had then about 100 people to start with then it dropped down to prob.ably about 60 by the time we came to the Cafe and I actually said to the people who were there “So now you understand a little bit more about social tools, how do you think they could be applied within your organisation and what do you think the issues will be, what do you think the problems will be in using them”? So we then went into Cafe mode. So what we had in the room was a group of people I think called future leaders, they were younger managers on a fast-track to the top. Everyone knew they were there, there was nothing hidden here. What they did, they just joined in the conversation, they weren’t leading or anything, so they were equals in that sense, but they simply made sure that they didn’t sit at the same tables and they made much more extensive notes that every.body else. So they came away having joined in and listened to the conversations with a whole load of notes. So we did the Cafe and then, after lunch, we sat down together just the future leaders group and they started to put together their plans to submit to senior management as to what they wanted to do as piloting the social tools. So, it wasn’t quite like a focus group but it was trying to get input from the people in the organisation to come up with a plan which was probably much more likely to succeed, partly because they listened to people and partly also now because the people actually felt that they had been involved in the process. It just seemed to me that that was a very good application of the Cafe and, as you can see here, again, you know, this is a much more specific outcome. If you like, the conversational part was like a by-product, there was actually an outcome at the end of this Cafe.
A very similar example was a group of senior managers at Dubai Holdings who had come to Amsterdam for the week, Nottingham University had taken them there, they had visited a lot of organisations that were running KM programmes. They had attended a number of knowledge-management lectures and, on the last evening, they wanted to do some.thing that would help them reflect and sum up what they had learnt during the week but to do it in an informal, social manner, so we did this on a canal boat on the canal in the evening. I simply explained to them what the Cafe was about and, again, posed a very similar question to that last one so, you know, you’ve been here a whole week and you’ve learnt a great deal about knowledge-management, now what are you going to do when you get back to Dubai? So that was the element of that Cafe. What was interesting about that Cafe I thought was that a lot of different issues had come up about a lot of different things. There was one thing that dominated that conversation that evening, and that was it seems that in Dubai it’s a very competitive sort of dog-eat-dog business, you know, business was like that, and they were saying that there was a real problem in terms of knowledge-management that nobody wanted to collaborate with each other but they all wanted to compete, and that was quite an interesting insight.
Another example is Statoil Hydro, two oil companies in Norway that merged about two years ago, Statoil Hydro, have used the Cafes really quite extensively, I’ve been out there a few times and taught a lot of people how to run Cafes. I won’t go through all of these in great detail. First of all, they used them as part of the merger, so they actually brought their senior management together to have conversations and they brought their technical people together to have conversations, so if you think of two different organisations, most of their knowledge is tacit, it’s in people’s heads, it’s not necessarily written in the documents or, even if it’s written in the documents, nobody necessarily knows where it is or thinks to tell people so, you know, at a technology level, bringing the engineers together so that somebody from Statoil gets to know that the problem that they’ve been struggling with for the last five years has actually been solved by an engineer in Hydro sometime earlier and that’s extremely important. So, again, just getting that sharing of knowledge between the two organisations both at a managerial level and a technical level. They used them with their geophysicists. It seems to be when you come initially to explore for an oil well there are various technologies that you can use. Again, a lot of the geophysicists had worked in silos, so when it came to deciding what was the best technology, they would fight with each other because they wanted their technology to be used even if it wasn’t the best one so, again, they were trying to bring the geologists together to have these conversations in an open sort of way so they could start to see the different relative merits of the technologies, even to see new solutions, hybrid solutions of ways that technologies could be used together so they could make a better decision when they came to explore wells.
One of the ones I liked in particular was that they used it for management training. Here they would bring a group of junior managers together with a group of senior managers, and I guess there were probably a few less senior ones there, and one of the senior man.agers would tell a story. The example they gave me was a senior manager gave the story of when he was younger and he had to fire somebody for the first time, he had to make the decision to fire somebody for the first time. So, he tells the story to the group and then they go into Cafe mode and discuss what they would have done had they been in that situation, and then at the very end of the Cafe the manager explains to them what he did at the time, what he decided to do at the time, and then in retrospect whether it was the right thing to do. So, again, it’s a way of showing tacit knowledge in a conversational way rather than having somebody standing up at the front, you know, maybe somebody from HR, taking you through the pros and cons of whether to fire somebody or not. Again, it’s getting people engaged, getting people thinking about the issues and, of course, when you’ve got those senior managers and junior ones together, even the senior managers would have different views on things, it wasn’t as if in those situations there was a right or wrong answer. So, again, they’re using it in lots and lots of different ways.
I think the key thing here about the Cafes is if you’re trying to run them within your own organisation, the question that comes up time and time again is, you know, how do you get by with senior management? And I think if you just go along and say wouldn’t it be great to have a Knowledge Cafe you’re probably unlikely - it depends on your organisation, depends on your management - it seems to me that some managers seem to under.stand the importance of conversation and others fundamentally don’t. If you’ve got people who don’t, then I think what you need to do is you start with the business from them, you know, what business issue are we trying to solve here, what kind of Cafe can be used to help solve what particular problem. And, often, the Cafe is just part of the solution; it’s something that you can build in to the solution rather than being the total solution. I think the other big idea - I’ve not seen anyone do it yet - and that’s actually to run a Cafe for senior managers themselves. I think there are great discussions in this where some people say that managers have got where they are because they’re good conversationalists and they recognise the need for interaction, and others say no, they are very socially inept individuals and that by and large they tend to focus on the business and they are not so good at social relationships and having conversations and the arguments as to the nature of managers in general. So, there’s the whole issue of them selling it.
Talking about recording outcomes, if you’re doing it to replace a presentation, I don’t think there is any need to record outcomes but, at times when you’re trying to capture things, for various reasons clearly they are - some of the reasons maybe not to capture or how to capture - the key thing with capturing stuff is to ask the question why you are doing it, what are you actually going to do with the outcomes at the end of the day and if you’re not going to do anything it doesn’t make sense to record it, and if you are then think very carefully about what you want to capture and how you are going to capture it and to do it in a way that’s not going to interfere with the conversation. Ways I’ve seen it done - I think it often works best if you’ve got somebody outside of the Cafe, maybe sitting out to one side especially in the circle, they can capture notes. I’ve just done a series of Cafes with the FSA, the Financial Services Authority in London, and what they did, they did a couple of things, they actually had somebody at each table who wasn’t part of the conversation as such making notes at the table because if it’s a Cafe where they want to surface issues and solve problems and issues they had, there’s somebody at each table making notes and then when we came to the circle, these people actually sat in the circle and they or somebody made notes, so I think we had like five tables so there were five separate people making notes and they all pulled together and collated and produced a little report at the end of all of this, and that worked quite well and it didn’t disrupt the conversation too much.
I had somebody do a Cafe a little while ago where I could consult with them how to do the Cafe but I wasn’t actually part of it. This was for a bunch of doctors at a conference that they were running who were going to discuss the various aspects of colon cancer and there were lots of different views and perspectives on that. They wanted to capture a lot of the ideas and they put microphones on each table and recorded every single conversation. They told them they were doing it - I don’t know to what extent that might have pre.vented maybe some open conversation because sometimes when people know they’re being recorded, they are disinclined to be as open as they might. They actually recorded the conversations, they had them transcribed and the woman who was running this - she was a medical practitioner herself - she then went through the transcriptions which was quite a lot of work and highlighted the key parts of the conversation, parts of the conversation that they thought were useful. At a different event, a pharmaceutical company were doing this, and they were looking for insights from the doctors, so they then produced a report that they could use internally, but that took a lot of time and a lot of money for them to actually do that.
Occasionally, we’ve visually captured Knowledge Cafes - I don’t think that really captures the conversation, it might capture the ambience or the energy in the room and it might capture some aspect of what’s being discussed, but it’s not terribly useful for acting on afterwards, you know, so there are various ways in which you can capture things.
I always say about Cafes, never mandate that people should be there, I don’t think you can mandate people to have interesting conversations. They’ll come along and maybe they’ll talk, but their hearts really won’t be in it.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License