World Café (conversational process)
The "World Café" is a structured conversational process intended to facilitate open and intimate discussion, and link ideas within a larger group to access the "collective intelligence" or collective wisdom in the room. Participants move between a series of tables where they continue the discussion in response to a set of questions, which are predetermined and focused on the specific goals of each World Café. A café ambience is created in order to facilitate conversation and represent a third place. In some versions a "talking stick" may be used to make sure that all participants get a chance to speak. As well as speaking and listening, individuals are encouraged to write or doodle on a paper tablecloth so that when people change tables they can see what previous members have expressed in their own words and images. The first World Café event was organized in 1995 and since then the number of people who have participated in events is estimated to be in the tens of thousands.
The World Café process originated at the home of Juanita Brown and David Isaacs in 1995 when a "large circle" conversation became disrupted by rain. It was refined by several months of research and study by Juanita Brown, Finn Voltofte, and other participants of the original group into the method used today. Meg Wheatley and Juanita Brown later introduced the World Café while they were choosing a program on living systems on behalf of the Berkana Institute.
In World Cafés the total number of participants must be at least twelve but have numbered several thousand. The highest number of people documented at a single World Cafe event was in excess of 10,000 in Tel Aviv, 2011.
Small groups of four or five participants sit around a table and discuss an open-ended question for a structured amount of time. Notes and drawings are often made by participants on the paper tablecloths used in most events. Individuals switch tables after the agreed upon amount of time, where (if they are being used) a "table host" at the new table briefly welcomes people and fills them in on highlights of the previous discussion.
Participants have multiple rounds of conversation in response to defined questions, taking the ideas from one group and adding to them, developing insights through multiple conversations with a diverse number of people, and expanding the collective knowledge of the group. In this way participants gather a wide range of inputs that help strengthen the ‘ecology’ of the conversation. A round of conversation lasts between 20–30 minutes. A "table host" may be used to anchor each table, welcoming incoming participants and relaying any key insights from the last round of conversation.
In World Café the focus is on exploring and innovating on themes rather than on problem-solving. The format is principally designed as a forum for creative or open thinking and is not suited to scenarios where there is a predetermined answer or solution. According to co-founder Juanita Brown: “(It is) ... the creative cross-pollination of people and ideas combined with the disciplined use of questions as attractors that is perhaps the World Café’s defining contribution to dialogic learning and collective intelligence.”
The World Café approach makes use of a listening approach that has been described by Juanita Brown as “listening for the middle” or in other words listening objectively without filtering through the person’s own self-regard. This approach tries to evaluate the conversation as it grows by referencing the different strands that are being brought to bear. The World Café process provides an open forum for discussion that aims to equalise the power relationships between participants in order to understand and learn from multiple points of view. World Café has been described as an example of ‘process tools that are well suited to enriching perspectives' and provides a basis for people to be understood.
World Cafes are characterized by the following elements:
- Each person interprets the world differently, based on his/her perception. Sharing the viewpoints of others is essential for understanding alternatives and adapting strategies to deal with environments.
- Shifting collective thinking provides an opportunity to change the status quo and create a context for collective action.
- All systems and organizations can address challenges by using the knowledge already contained within and mobilising the collective wisdom.
- People want to engage and will do so if an appropriate environment is provided that recognises the contribution of all. Having this will foster a strong commitment to achieve common goals.
- A World Café event is designed to facilitate collaboration but not guide participants to a pre-determined solution.
World Cafe events are designed and hosted according to the following principles:
- Clarify the context
- Create a hospitable environment
- Explore questions that matter
- Encourage everyone’s contribution
- Connect diverse perspectives
- Listen together for insights and deeper questions
- Gather and share collective discoveries
The World Café approach has been used by a range of organizations including corporates, NGOs, non-profits, local government organizations, academic and voluntary groups.
Aramco, the Saudia Arabian state oil company began using World Café events in its engineering and operations services division in 2003 and credited the approach for giving staff a better understanding of how corporate strategy linked to their roles. Hewlett-Packard has also used the process and credited it with reducing the accident rate across the company by more than 33 per cent, principally because it encouraged input from employees about safety issues.
In Canada the Canadian International Development Agency in conjunction with the United Nations Development Program has used World Café events for several years to facilitate discussions between opposing parties as part of its Democratic Dialogue and Conflict Prevention program.
In British Columbia the federal, provincial and municipal governments used the World Café process to devise an Urban Development Agreement to tackle urban challenges like poverty and homelessness. Municipal water authorities - Yarra Valley Water in Victoria, Australia also used the events while in Mexico, the approach was utilized to facilitate discussions between government officials and farmers. It has been credited with influencing the strategic direction and focus of Mexico’s National Fund for Social Enterprise.
The World Café approach has been adopted by non-profits like the Ohio-based Foodbank. There, CEO Matt Habash organised events for the purposes of creating a system that connected food, hunger and poverty and helped devise a strategy for the supply and delivery of foodbank services. The World Café approach was also used to develop the curriculum at Ohio State University’s College of Social Work. Similarly, in Africa the International Water Management Institute utilized World Café events to further discussions among stakeholders.
In Israel social activists held a World Café event in Tel Aviv in 2011 that brought together individuals from groups including Arabs, Orthodox Jews, settlers, new immigrants and those from both the left and right wings of the political divide. In all over 10,000 people participated across 30 cities in Israel, making the event the largest World Café up to that time.
The World Café approach has been used at community level in Scotland. Reports of World Café events in Inverurie, Scotland described how the get-togethers had consolidated social networks between various community organizations and provided for qualitative research arising out of commentary from residents. There community development workers played a key part in creating events that were described as ‘remarkable’ and ‘empowering’.
In the field of education the World Café has been used to create discursive environments among nurses as well as in hospitals. Schools in Long Island introduced World Café events as a way of encouraging students to accept more responsibility and show greater leadership. Events have also been run in universities.
Parent Café events utilising World Café methods have been used in several states in the U.S. including Illinois and California and by International Montessori Schools as a way of facilitating engagement between parents and guardian and providers on issues affecting children In Boston the Jewish organization Keshet, has utilized Parent Café events to discuss issues with parents relating to children and LGBTQ.
The World Café approach has also been used by Christian church groups in the United States as a way of encouraging creative thought among members particularly in situations where there were concerns that individuals were not being listened to.
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