Knowledge Cafés and Cultural Variances

I’ve been nursing an addiction to LinkedIn groups—itSMF and knowledge management groups, in particular. One term that’s been coming up a lot is knowledge café. A knowledge café is a facilitated workshop, occurring in the workplace, that assists in a sort-of goal-oriented conversation. Conversations we could have at work with the intention of sharing knowledge and building on our professional relationships. David Gurteen is a well-known facilitator of knowledge cafés around the world. Borrowed from Woodsiegirl’s blog, David’s process goes something like this:

  • Set the context for the conversation, most usually with a speaker, talking for no more than 10 minutes
  • The speaker asks open-ended trigger question
  • Small group conversations at tables – max 4
  • Whole group conversation at table – max 20-30
  • Share actionable insights

But here’s the thing; facilitation and structure in most people’s minds equals meetings, which are time-consuming and disruptive to “real” work. An organisation, and the majority of its employees, has to be pretty enlightened for this process to routinely succeed. In my experience, people are too shy to speak up, too busy to attend, or overcompensate for their insecurities by using it as a platform to show-off. Are any of these kinds of people familiar to you?

Don’t get me wrong, I love the concept and it has immeasurable value. Perhaps that half the problem—we can’t accurately quantify the value. The Australian cultural bent doesn’t naturally go that way, but there was a time when we almost made it.

If you’re in IT, reminisce with me. Back in the days of the dot com boom we had breakout rooms and air hockey tables. We had post-work drinks and afternoon tea birthday cakes almost every day. There were meetings and responsibilities, too, but there was also a shared lust to be the first with the fastest broadband, or the best portal, or the highest-selling app. We were working and talking and sharing, and our fun was funded by the Monopoly money the dot com bubble was floating on.

The the bubble burst and we had a…readjustment. A reality check. The play money stopped and so did the fun. Our intellectual property became the premium product again; the shared lust and vision lost. We’re ten years on. We’ve learned. We know now what the real balance sheets are saying, and we’ve finally got a grip on the notion that our people are what is important to our products and processes.

So here’s what I suggest to encourage knowledge sharing and innovating in the Australian culture, in any industry: Beer & Whiteboard time. By 3pm on a Friday most people are past working. The week is pretty much over, so harness that wind-down time for relationship building and knowledge sharing. Invite staff to come to the boardroom, provide a few drinks as social lubrication, (not too much, of course), and throw two questions at them. Don’t invite responses to the front of the room; tell them to think about it and talk amongst themselves. Tell them to feel free to grab a pen and write it on the board. (Bigger companies could run this at a department level.) It’s not compulsory and not over-facilitated, there are no minutes taken, and it’s strictly wrapped up in an hour or two. Call it something else, if you like—even “Thank God it’s Friday”, but this is how Australians in the workplace share information with each other more openly. Accept it and work with it. Consider the cultural equivalents in your organisation and embrace those, instead.

Oh! And the questions?

1. What have you experienced at work this week? and;

2. What are some ways we could make what we do even better for our customers?

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