A Knowledge Café I facilitated for WINN (Worcestershire Innovation)?in Worcester in April 2017. The question: “What are life’s big questions that require innovation as an answer?”
What is a Knowledge Café?
The Knowledge Café is a conversational process that brings a group of people together to share experiences, learn from each other, build relationships and make a better sense of a rapidly changing, complex, less predictable world to improve decision making, innovation and the ways in which we work together.
The Knowledge Café is a simple but flexible, conversational event that almost anyone can run. You do not need to be a professional facilitator.
The Café at its purest brings a group of people together to have a conversation on a topic of mutual interest to better understand an issue but it can be adapted for a variety of purposes and at its best is a powerful sense-making tool.
The aims of the Café include the surfacing of the group’s collective knowledge; learning from each other; sharing ideas and insights; gaining a deeper understanding of a topic and the issues involved and exploring possibilities. It can also be used to help connect people, improve interpersonal relationships, break down organizational silos, and improve trust and engagement. What is different about the Knowledge Café compared to similar methodologies is that no attempt is made to make decisions or reach consensus as part of the Café itself.
And often nothing is captured. The real outcomes are what people take away in their heads and the relationships that are developed. A central tenet is that anything that gets in the way of the free flow of the conversation is a bad thing. At its best, a Knowledge Café adheres to some principles that help create a relaxed, informal, conversational environment conducive to open dialogue and to learning.
What is the purpose of the Knowledge Café?
The Knowledge Café does not have one specific purpose – it can be put to many different ends (see the table of uses below) but it should always have a purpose.
You start with the purpose and design a Café to fulfill that aim but other than setting the theme and posing the question no desired outcomes should be articulated. The outcomes of a Knowledge Café are emergent, they should not be pre-planned. There is a fine distinction between a purpose and an outcome.
A purpose might be to build better relationships, to understand an issue better or to learn from each other while an outcome might be to make a decision or to define a plan. A purpose is a form of outcome, but it is broad, it is not specific.
Some Knowledge Café purposes:
- Share knowledge and learn from each other
In many organizations some departments, teams or individuals regularly outperform others. Bringing these groups together to have conversations around specific issues, problems or technologies is an excellent way of sharing critical knowledge.
- Connect people and build relationships
Many people in organizations do not know each other well. This leads to misunderstandings, erosion of trust and the inability to work together well. One of the simplest and most effective uses of a Café is to connect people and improve the social fabric of an organization.
- Gain a better understanding of a complex issue
In a fast-changing, competitive environment the consequences of change are not always obvious, and one person rarely has all the insights. The Café allows a conversation that brings diverse perspectives together to make a better sense of an issue.
- Identify risks or unintended consequences associated with a project
Many projects get well underway when serious problems arise – ones that were foreseeable if only time had been given over to thinking about the risks beforehand. Convening a Café specifically to discuss the risks of a high-profile project is well worth the investment.
- Surface hidden problems
Many problems in an organization go unseen as people do not realize the consequences of their actions or lack of action. By bringing people together from different departments and getting them to talk to each other, conversation can help surface such problems.
- Surface opportunities
Opportunities to develop new products or services; work in new ways; form new business relationships or partnerships abound in any organization. It is rare that time is found to identify such possibilities. The Café is an easy way to do this.
Watch these two videos for a few minutes:
The energy and engagement in the room is striking
“It sounds such a simple idea, but until you have experienced a knowledge cafe you won’t understand just how powerful they can be in connecting people, generating new ideas and tackling issues.
David, in particular, brings a special kind of energy to the room that really helps, but when you stop and think about it, we are given very little time in our working lives to engage honestly and authentically with one another in that uniquely human activity, that fundamental building block of trust and understanding; conversation.”
The Happy Work Place