Knowledge Cafés - understanding the transformative power of conversation

Louise Auckland shares her experiences of attending a David Gurteen Knowledge Café in London.

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"The idea of setting up a Knowledge Café in order to promote conversations with work colleagues, within an organisation, makes a lot of sense."

David Gurteen (www.gurteen.com) argues that most of our learning is done in the conversations we have after an idea has been posed - for example, after a meeting has ended, or after a training session has finished. It is these discussions that inform our learning and give us the time to reflect and discuss issues raised or learned.

What is a Knowledge Café?

Essentially, a Knowledge Café is a conversational process where people join in conversations, whilst having a coffee, to discuss ideas in a relaxed and informal way. Knowledge Cafés can be used in various ways to improve conversations within organisations, such as:

  • sharing best practice
  • transforming meetings
  • building relationships
  • sharing knowledge
  • to spur innovation
  • to give people a voice
  • increase an understanding of issues

I can see the potential to use a Knowledge Café in a variety of ways, but as someone who works in a health library I particularly liked the idea of calling a Knowledge Café, a 'Randomised Coffee Trial' to reflect a term familiar to health librarians (Randomised Controlled Trial, or RCT).

In a Randomised Coffee Trial people in an organisation pick say 2, 3, or 4 people at random and have a coffee together, once a week. This is so that people that wouldn't normally work together have a chance to engage in conversation. The conversation that flows does not necessarily need to be work related - it is just a good way to build relationships and a way of getting to know colleagues that you would not normally come into contact with during the working day.

Many large organisations now run Randomised Coffee Trials, such as the DfE (Department for Education), The Cabinet Office, Nesta, RSA, and the Scottish Government, to name but a few.

The Knowledge Cafe Experience

The Knowledge Café I attended at the RSA formed part of the UKeiG Members Day.  

We got to try out the idea of how a Knowledge Café works in practice. We were put into groups of 3 or 4 and each group sat around a small table. As facilitator David posed a question for discussion - "How do we encourage and nurture more conversation in our organisations?"

The concept worked very well, and although you will naturally get some people that will talk more than others, everyone benefitted from the ideas and conversations generated in the discussions.

I really liked the idea, and I will report back to work about how useful I think running a Randomised Coffee Trial/Knowledge Café could be.  It would be a good way to facilitate discussion and for people to meet and discuss their job roles. Setting up and running a Knowledge Café is a good idea, as it can be easily adapted to suit different organisations.

However, I don't think once a week would be very practical for a lot of organisations, but I do like the idea of running a Knowledge Café to see what conversations are generated and what we could all learn from them.


Louise Auckland works at Laxton Library, Peterborough City Hospital, UK. She attended the David Gurteen Knowledge Cafe as part of the UKeiG Members Day.

Picture courtesy of Jenny Dowling via Flickr.