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Gurteen-style Knowledge Cafes: An Alternative Approach to Learning and Networking

5 Aug 2008

David Gurteen describes himself as an “independent knowledge advisor and facilitator”. He is the founder of the Gurteen Knowledge Community which functions virtually through its community website, and through Knowledge Cafes, which meet regularly in different cities around the world in a workshop-like setting. Gurteen visited Singapore recently and talked to Knowledge@SMU about his views on knowledge sharing, learning and networking.      

Knowledge@SMU: How did you move from an IT career to knowledge management (KM) and running Knowledge Cafes?

Gurteen:  Getting into knowledge management and Knowledge Cafes are two slightly different stories. I’ve spent all my life as a professional IT developer and manager, initially in programming and engineering systems and, later, in communication and networking systems. In reality, I’m a techie. In my last job in corporate life, I worked for Lotus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and my title was ‘International Czar’. My job was to look right across the organisation to ensure that all the products were designed from day one as global products. A lot of that was fundamentally about knowledge management although it wasn’t called that. A big part of helping to educate the developers was having conversations and convincing them of the value of doing this, and what was in it for them. I learnt quite quickly it wasn’t about documenting stuff; it was very personal.

I left Lotus to work as a Lotus Notes consultant. Notes was the first collaborative development platform on which people started to build collective applications. Building the applications was the easy part. But getting people to collaborate -- that was always the biggest challenge. All the challenges were people challenges so I got a lot more interested in the people side. Then along came the internet, the World Wide Web and knowledge management. KM was born because, with the internet, organisations could connect people up internally. There was now a mechanism where people could share their knowledge on a global scale. But guess what all the issues were? The same as with Lotus Notes -- the technology was there but people didn’t necessarily share [knowledge].

The Knowledge Café came out of two forces, if you like. The first was the book, The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual, in which David Weinberger and others talked about business being a conversation. Then there was Theodore Zeldin’s book, Conversation, where he said that conversations don’t just shuffle the cards but create new cards. The sort of conversation he likes is one from which we are prepared to emerge a slightly different person. Actually Weinberger in his books said something else too -- that knowledge management shouldn’t be about pushing more and more information and knowledge at people. It should be about better understanding of the knowledge that they’ve already got. And then he went on to ask how can we better understand things.The answer? Through storytelling which is actually a form of conversation. If you think about it, long before we were chiselling stuff in stone or writing on parchment, we were sharing our experiences and teaching our children through stories. That’s the fundamental way that humans share their knowledge. It’s just natural. Writing stuff on paper is quite unnatural.

So that’s the academic side. The other side was the workshops and talks I’d been attending. You know the kind of death-by-PowerPoint talks, (chalk-and-talk), where speakers over-run their time and the audiences just ‘sit and git’. I wanted to run talks that were social, more interactive, more about people having conversations, not just ‘sitting and gitting’. So that’s how the café was born.

The basic, core process of the café is so simple that some people ask what all the fuss is about. You have a speaker who speaks -- for 5, 10, at most 30 minutes -- on a topic of interest to the group and then poses a question. It’s a pretty open-ended question rather than a yes/no question. In many ways it is the seed for the discussion. It isn't necessary to literally try to answer the question.

People sit in groups of four or five which works best as seven or eight are too many. They have a conversation for 10 to 15 minutes. Then I ask two or three people from each table to change tables once, twice, maybe three times -- or not at all depending on the time and place. Sometimes people don’t want to move as they’re deep in the conversation and don’t want to go and start all over again.

One of the principles is not to force people to do anything they don’t want to in that setting. You want them to feel relaxed and the conversation to bubble out and bring together that whole group. I’m trying to get away from people standing up and reporting back to me, and looking at the person in front of the room as the authoritative figure, the teacher.

There is also the idea of not appointing a leader for each table. If you get someone who’s dominant, that defeats the purpose. Or if you’ve got someone who doesn’t want to [lead], that person is not really part of the conversation as he or she is worried about having to stand up and report back. Again, the reporting back itself defeats the purpose of the café which is about having a conversation. I’m trying to facilitate a conversation and not to influence the groups. A lot of the time, I won’t even go and stand by the tables as they might want to involve me. They are totally free to have their conversations and let it go wherever they want, because that’s where the creativity comes from.

Knowledge@SMU: Can you measure the benefits of the Knowledge Café approach?

Gurteen: It’s pretty much impossible to measure it. If somebody gets a good idea or has a thought from the café, they go away and do some research or talk to other people. Six months later there might come a stage when something emerges, but they could probably never pinpoint that the initial seed was a conversation they’d had in a café. Dave Snowden breaks the world down into four domains. There is the simple domain where the cause and effect is obvious. There is the complex domain where cause and effect is less obvious because everything is feeding into each other. Cafes are like that. You can’t determine the results of a particular action.  

Knowledge@SMU: In your article, “Evangelising Knowledge Management” you talk about the importance of getting senior management buy-in. With the Knowledge Cafes, which level in an organisation usually invites you to run them?   

Gurteen: It’s not usually senior management that drives Knowledge Cafes, but middle management somewhere in the organisation. Most of the senior managers that I’ve seen are very focused on business results and the bottom line figures. To them, conversation is a woolly, wishy washy thing.

Knowledge@SMU: How would you sell the benefits of running a Knowledge Café to an organisation?  

Gurteen: My approach to this is very much like KM. You don’t ‘do’ KM; you solve business problems using KM tools and techniques. In the same way, you don’t ‘do’ Knowledge Cafes; you use them to help with business problems. You can start by understanding the café and what it’s about. You should also understand that it is not rigid, and you can do it in lots of different ways. Ultimately the café is about enabling and creating opportunities for conversations. You could look at your organisation, the problems and issues you’re facing, and ask how the café can help as a tool.

I have this example where, following the merger between Statoil and Hydro, they brought the managers together to talk in a knowledge café. What they’re doing is getting to know each other and building relationships which is pretty important in such a merger. They are getting to understand the different cultures, ways of seeing the world, processes and systems. You’ll be amazed how two oil companies have totally different ways of doing things. They’re getting to understand the different problems, issues and barriers about working together, and using the tool for a specific business purpose.

They’re also using it because of senior engineers retiring and that’s a loss of knowledge. So rather than trying to interview those engineers and get them to write everything down, which is pretty much impossible, they’re having conversations with younger engineers to pass across their tacit knowledge. They are not being put together to have a conversation about how to share knowledge, but to capture some of the specific knowledge they will be losing when people retire.

Knowledge@SMU: Would Knowledge Cafes be useful in academic settings?

Gurteen:  At times I’ve been horrified at the academic world because people do really seem to work in silos, in their disciplines. To give an example, at the first academic conference I went to, 120 people were presenting papers over two days. There were four parallel streams and everyone had 30 minutes -- 20 minutes to present, five minutes for Q&A, and five minutes to change rooms. Everyone over-ran so there was no time for interaction. Most of them had no training in presentation skills and most of the presentations were incomprehensible.

This was not a conference where people came together to share knowledge. It was a paper presentation machine. The only reason people came to the conference was to say they had presented a paper at this prestigious KM conference. Knowledge Cafés could totally transform such events.