Knowledge Café

A Knowledge Café is a conversational process that is sometimes called World Café.  It is an innovative yet simple methodology for hosting conversations about questions that matter. These conversations link and build on each other as people move between groups, cross-pollinate ideas, and discover new insights into the questions or issues that are important in their work or community. As a process, a Knowledge Café can evoke and make visible the collective intelligence of any group, thus increasing people’s capacity for effective action in pursuit of common aims.

How to Conduct a Knowledge Café

The most critical factors for success of a Knowledge Café are: 1) clarifying the reason for bringing people together, and 2) constructing stimulating, open-ended questions. Other crucial success factors are described below.

Clarify the Purpose

The facilitator and the organizer of the Knowledge Café must be very clear about the purpose of the meeting. A clear purpose enables the facilitator to consider which participants need to be there and what parameters are important to achieve the purpose.

Create a Hospitable Space

It is important that the meeting organizers create a hospitable space—one that feels safe and inviting. When people feel comfortable to be themselves, they do their most creative thinking, speaking, and listening. In particular, organizers should consider how their invitation and the physical set-up of the meeting room contribute to creating a welcoming atmosphere.

Explore Questions that Matter

Finding and framing questions that matter to those who are participating in the Café is an area where thought and attention can produce profound results. A Knowledge Café may only explore a single question, or several questions may be developed to support a logical progression of discovery throughout several rounds of dialogue. In the latter case, the meeting organizers must select one question for each café table (and there will be one café table for each 5-7 meeting attendees). The meeting organizers must carefully select questions that focus discussion towards the purpose of the event and are sufficiently open to allow good dialogue.

Connect Diverse Perspectives

Invite a widely diverse group of participants. The opportunity to move between tables, meet new people, actively contribute thinking, and link discoveries to ever-widening circles of thought is one of the characteristics of the Knowledge Café. As participants carry key ideas or themes to new tables, they exchange perspectives, greatly enriching the possibility for surprising new insights.

Encourage Everyone's Contribution

Leaders are increasingly aware of the importance of participation, but most people don’t only want to participate, they want to actively contribute to making a difference. It is important that the meeting facilitator encourages everyone in the meeting to contribute their ideas and thoughts, while also allowing anyone who wants to participate by simply listening, to do so.

Each Table Has a Host Who is Paying Attention to Themes and Insights

One host is needed for each table. The table hosts should be briefed on the role in advance of the meeting. They are to take notes on the discussion but are not expected to facilitate or direct the discussion. The participants can easily facilitate themselves with brief instructions from the table host.

Room Setup

  • Small round tables of 36-42 inches in diameter are ideal but small square tables will also work
  • Each table has a table tent or card indicating the discussion question or topic for that table
  • If possible, cover the tables with paper and provide colored markers to allow the participants to draw or write comments on the paper table coverings as one means of sharing their thoughts with other table visitors
  • One chair per participant
  • No podium or projectors are used

Knowledge Café Meeting Process

Welcome

The Café host welcomes the participants and establishes a tone of curiosity and friendliness. The host states that he or she is not there to guide the group to a specific conclusion, because through the exchange of thinking, the unexpected can happen, that is, new ideas, new ways of thinking, and new solutions can emerge. The Café host introduces the guidelines for the Café.

Sitting at Tables

The Café host asks the meeting participants to sit as groups of five to six people at small tables. The table at which people start the Café is their “home table”.  If the distribution of people at the tables is too uneven, the Café host will direct a quick re-distribution.  In that case, whatever table each participant is at after the re-distribution is his or her home table.

Round 1 of the Table Discussions

At each table, participants discuss the “table question” for 20 to 30 minutes.  The table hosts encourage the table guests to write or draw key ideas on the table paper, or to note key ideas on large cards or placemats in the center of the group. The table host uses a notebook or pad to summarize the discussion as it continues.

Moving On

When the allotted time is almost up, the café facilitator sounds a bell to give the “two-minute warning”.  This means it's time to finish up and get ready to move on. When the café facilitator gives a second signal, everyone except the table host moves to another table of their choice.  Ideally, the members of the table should try to choose different tables so that they do not move from table to table as a group.

Round 2 of the Table Discussions

The table host welcomes the new guests and briefly shares the main ideas, themes and questions of the initial conversation (no more than 3 minutes – it is not necessary to share everything that was said, only a broad outline). The host encourages the new table guests to link and connect ideas coming from their previous table conversations—listening carefully and building on each other's contributions. Again each table host continues to and record the discussion. By providing opportunities for people to move in several rounds of conversation, ideas, questions, and themes begin to link and connect. At the end of the second round, all of the tables or conversation clusters in the room will be cross-pollinated with insights from prior conversations.

Subsequent Rounds of Discussion

The meeting organizers decide in advance how many rounds of discussion there will be. There should be a minimum of three rounds, but in any case the number of rounds should not be greater than the number of café tables.  In further rounds, the table guests continue travelling to new tables, leaving the same host at the table. If there are more tables than topics, it is fine to repeat some topics (that is, have conversations about the same topic at more than one table).  Some guests may also want to repeat a topic (that is, participate in a second conversation about the same topic with new guests).

Final Round of Discussion

When the Café host announces the final round, everyone returns to their home table. The table host shares what visitors contributed to the table topic since the others left the table.  Table guests share what they learned in their visits to other tables. The table host records the collective results in a form that can be used after the Knowledge Café to build a consolidated view from the entire Café. 

Whole Group Conversation

The Café host asks the meeting participants to move the tables to one side and gather all the chairs into one large circle. The host then facilitates a whole group conversation to share discoveries and insights. It is in these whole group conversations that patterns can be identified, collective knowledge grows, and possibilities for action emerge.

Variations

The Knowledge Café is a very versatile process that can be used in many situations and can accept many modifications. For example, one question can be used for all tables, or different questions can be used for different tables. In some situations a “talking stick” (the person holding the stick is the only one that can speak until it is passed to another) may be used, but in others conversation is more natural. Some Knowledge Cafés end with a gallery walk with participants taking a tour of the tablecloths to read what is written there; in others, notes from the tables are published or distributed to all participants after the Café.   

When Not to Use a Knowledge Café 

A Knowledge Café should not be used just to build relationships or to just get people acquainted. It must always be used to address serious issues that matter to the group that has been brought together.It should not be used to get “buy in” on an issue that has already been decided. If an issue has been decided, people will view asking for their thinking about it as a waste of their time.

Roles

The roles associated with the Knowledge Café are as follows:

The Café Host or Facilitator is responsible for:

  • Working with the planning team to determine the purpose of the Café and decide who should be invited to the gathering.
  • Naming the Café in a way appropriate to its purpose, for example: Leadership Café; Strategy Café; Discovery Café, etc.
  • Helping frame the invitation
  • Create a welcoming environment
  • Welcoming the participants as they enter
  • Explaining the purpose of the Café
  • Presenting the questions for rounds of conversation and make sure that the question is visible (for example putting the question on table tents or standing cards at each table)
  • Explaining how the logistics of the Café will work, including the role of the table host (the person who remains at each table throughout all the rounds of conversation)
  • During the conversation, moving among the tables to listen in on conversations
  • Encouraging everyone to participate
  • Reminding people to write down key ideas, doodle, and draw on the tablecloths or write notes on the tablecloths
  • Letting people know in a gentle way when it’s time to move and begin a new round of conversation
  • Asking people NOT to move as a group, but for each member to select a different table
  • Making sure key insights are recorded visually or are gathered and posted.

The table host is responsible for:

  • Reminding people at their table to jot down key ideas, discoveries, and deeper questions as they emerge
  • Remaining at the table when others leave and welcome travelers from other tables
  • Briefly sharing key insights from the prior conversation so others can link and build on them using ideas from their respective tables
  • Taking notes to summarize for the next group

They are NOT responsible for correcting other people’s ideas

Participants are responsible for:

  • Listening for themes, patterns and insights, when others are talking
  • Sharing their discoveries with others at the table
  • Freely contributing their own ideas 
Report Author(s): 
Nancy M. Dixon
Organization(s): 
Common Knowledge Associates
ASSIST publication: 
no
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