Conversational Flows for Knowledge Sharing

Knowledge Cafes, Barcamps and Beyond: Conversational Flows for Knowledge Sharing


by Madanmohan Rao

Editor, The KM Chronicles

Bangalore; April 21, 2010



If you are ever in Bangalore on the third Wednesday of any month, you must attend the Bangalore K-Community: the monthly gathering of knowledge management professionals! Despite heavy pre-monsoon showers and competition from the IPL cricket matches, the “KM faithful” gathered again this month at the offices of Unisys for a presentation and panel discussion on engagement methods for organisational knowledge sharing (see for speaker profiles).


Ravishankar Ivaturi, operations manager at the Unisys Global Technology Centre, explained how they have used the WorldCafé system ( to “create conversations about issues that matter.” This method of rotating discussion groups around small tables and periodically reporting on conversations has helped harness collective intelligence, build better connections between employees, and ensure that there is consistency in shared knowledge.


It is particularly useful across large and distributed project teams. Success factors include finding the optimum themes, number of tables, participants, and iterations. In some Asian organisations, there can be cultural barriers due to hierarchy and seniority. “Employees need an appropriate space to show their emotions. It is important for managers to help employees find the freedom and courage to express themselves irrespective of their position in the organisation. People love to talk and express themselves best in a conducive environment,” explained Ivaturi.


He explained how Unisys used the WorldCafe method to “co-configure, co-design and co-create” appropriate learning and conversation spaces; this helped the organisation get broader inputs for its business plans and thereby more buy-in from the teams across its offices in India, China, US and Australia. It improved the organisation’s employee engagement and created a cultural shift; it also helped come up with better performance metrics.


“The informality of a café environment helps improve buzz. Participants can talk, write, draw or even doodle. This improves their participation in organisational activities, and is much better than just being at a meeting,” said Ivaturi.


This format has been used in half-day and two-day workshops. Tools like MindMaps help visualise the domain space. Participants from remote locations can also join in via phone bridge.


(I have come across other instances where organisations also tweet certain sections of internal café sessions live, and invite followers and participants from around the world to pitch in with their observations and suggestions!)


A range of other formats can also be used successfully, such as quizzes, jam sessions, debates, graffiti walls, speed geeking, Knowledge 10-10, barcamps and knowledge cafes, according to Padma Bhamidipati, Principal, Knowledge Management Group, Infosys Technologies


She explained how knowledge cafes were used in 2009-2010 to involve 10,000+ Infosys employees in strategy formulation. “Attention deficit is on the rise in an always connected world. Well-designed face-to-face interactions help improve involvement of knowledge workers in an organisation, she added.


C.S. Shobha, Senior Director of Quality & Operational Excellence at Dell Services, also explained how competitions, Six Thinking Hats, debates, annual Knowledge Fests and live judging events helped crystallise awareness about best practices. Quizzes are good for bringing in more participation from younger employees, thanks to the buzz factor, excitement and a chance to win prizes.


Both panelists agreed that monetary incentives may work in early stages of launching a KM initiative in an organisation, but as the organisation matures it is peer recognition that matters more for knowledge contributors.


They also cautioned that even with a well-designed forum, great ideas will not always emerge. It is also hard to record everything at such interactive events, but the tacit-to-tacit knowledge exchange is productive.


Other K-Community participants such as Raj Datta, CKO of MindTree, explained how variations and mutations of such formats include realtime emergence of topics and hosts as compared to pre-determined ones. Formats such as barcamps and unconferences are becoming very popular in India, he observed.


In sum, in a world of increasing online interaction and social media, it is becoming more important than ever for managers to devise and design face-to-face and hybrid engagement formats to bring out new perspectives, crystallise knowledge across teams, and help people understand each other better.


See you all in May at our next K-Community gathering; suggestions for topics, sponsors and hosts most welcome!!!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>