The other day I attended a day’s session led by David Gurteen on his ‘Gurteen Knowledge Cafes’ concept. David is an international speaker in the Knowledge Management area, and I first met him with Jay Cross and Charles Jennings on a meeting about social learning.
So what’s a Knowledge Café? First of all the ‘café’ bit is incidental, other than to emphasise informality and its birth as an adaptation of the ‘World Café’ concept to the business world. In fact David said the model is that of a chat in a pub after a meeting, when the real conversation happens, but ‘knowledge pub’ might not go down too well in many parts of the world!
It’s a structure to enable a group of 20-30 people to examine a single topic or question in a way that allows participants to meet and exchange views in shifting groups, but removes the barriers to conversation inherent in the way such meetings are typically held. For example, the normal requirement of ‘syndicate groups’ to elect a scribe and report back to the wider group is removed (to everyone’s relief). Flipcharts are banned! A typical session is structured for 90m to 2 hours and discussion takes place in various small groups and in the large group of everyone.
I’ve seen other attempts to structure meetings to provide more focus than the default free-for-all or ‘chair plus agenda’ ways, from de Bono’s famous ‘thinking hats’ concept to a faintly embarrassing one based on native American traditions. While they seek to remove waffling and domination by individuals by setting up a form of role-play, the Knowledge Café takes the opposite approach of aiming to remove obstacles rather than putting in a structure which can take on as much importance (and debate) as the topic.
It’s actually nothing very dramatic at all, and therein lies its appeal. You come away thinking ‘ yes, this makes sense and I could easily run this. ‘. Gurteen recognises that some aspects of his approach will be controversial in business: for example the insistence on no formal ‘outputs’ – the benefits are tacit and therefore not available for objective measurement. He has arguments to support this position and it led our group to a wider discussion of the largely spurious nature of attempts at forecasting and measuring ROI in the fields of learning, development and knowledge management. Some managers will not be convinced by this very liberal approach but as in so many areas, it just takes one conspicuous good result to mark an approach as a Good Idea.