A knowledge café or World Café is a type of business meeting or organisational workshop which aims to provide an open and creative conversation on a topic of mutual interest to surface their collective knowledge, share ideas and insights, and gain a deeper understanding of the subject and the issues involved.
The knowledge café method has multiple origins with links to other related methods such as The World Cafe. Elizabeth Lank developed the concept creating a physical and mobile cafe area in the 1990s. It has been popularised by Charles Savage Knowledge Era Enterprizing and Entovation International and in recent years by David Gurteen, a UK-based consultant specialising in knowledge management. Eunika Mercier-Laurent uses a similar principle for her Innovation cafés.
Gurteen process and recommendations
The knowledge café begins with the participants seated in a circle of chairs (or concentric circles of chairs if the group is large or the room is small). It is led by a facilitator, who begins by explaining the purpose of knowledge cafés and the role of conversation in business life. The facilitator then introduces the café topic and poses one or two key open-ended questions. For example, if the topic is knowledge sharing, the question for the group might be: "What are the barriers to knowledge sharing in an organization, and how do you overcome them?"
When the introduction session is complete, the group breaks into small groups, with about five people in each group. Each small group discusses the questions for about 45 minutes. The small group discussions are not led by a facilitator, and no summary of the discussion is captured for subsequent feedback to the large group.
Participants then return to the circle and the facilitator leads the group through the final 45 minute session, in which people reflect on the small group discussions and share any thoughts, insights and ideas on the topic that may have emerged.
A knowledge café is most effective with between 15 and 50 participants. Thirty is an ideal number of people. If there are more than 50 participants it is usually necessary to employ microphones for the large group conversation, and this tends to inhibit the flow of the conversation. One to two hours is required for a worthwhile knowledge café. The only hard and fast rule is that the meeting is conducted in such a way that most of the time is spent in conversation. Presentations and feedback sessions have no place in knowledge cafés.
The knowledge café shares certain features with The World Cafe, a conversational process that originated during a strategic dialogue with the Intellectual Capital Pioneers at the home of Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, and subsequently developed by the global World Café community of practice.