Knowledge Café for conversations that matter

July 08, 2015 | Blog-Admin1 | Learning Elsewhere, Methods & Tools |


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“It is fundamental to have conversations with each other.” These are the words of David Gurteen, the founder of the Knowledge Café. A Knowledge Café is a simple process allowing people to engage in meaningful conversations to have deeper insights, to understand issues that are complex and challenging and to be in the position to make better decisions.

By Kuno Schläfli, Mirjam Walser and Nadia von Holzen, SDC

On Thursday 18, June 2015 SKAT Foundation and the Social Work Division of the Bern University of Applied Sciences invited to the Knowledge Café Masterclass. David Gurteen introduced us how to run a Knowledge Café. We were 24 people from different backgrounds and organisations.

K-cafe 1

Photo: Kuno Schläfli, SDC

A Knowledge Cafe is a means of bringing a group of people together to have an open, creative conversation on a topic of mutual interest to surface their collective knowledge, to share ideas and insights and to gain a deeper understanding of the subject and the issues involved.
David Gurteen

Let’s share a few observations and reflections:


Knowledge Café is conversation nothing more. It is a radical approach to organize conversations that matter and getting all barriers out of the way.

K-cafe 2

Photo: Kuno Schläfli, SDC

Anything that gets into the way of conversation is a bad thing.
David Gurteen

Knowledge Café is often compared to World Café. There are similarities but David Gurteen is insisting to limit rules and structure to an absolute minimum. In our experience Knowledge Café resembles more an Open Space discussion than a World Café. The role of the facilitator is light and gentle standing mostly in the background and if necessary taking out the fear of (shy) people.


And because the structure is light and soft the conversation unfolds in the most democratic way. The people are in power. The conversation is theirs. It is their freedom to go even off topic. David Gurteen insists that all participants are equal and no results or reporting back is expected. Product of the Café is what people carry home in their minds and hearts. There are no roles, such as table hosts or reporters, which makes that no one is entitled to dominate the conversation. A Knowledge Café is a “creative destruction of structure” as one participant summarized.

K-cafe 3

Photo: Kuno Schläfli, SDC


Knowledge Cafés are connecting. And therefore they are human and a great starting point for a network’s face-to-face meeting.

It’s about relationships, not exchange of data.
David Gurteen


Knowledge Cafés ask for presence. They are an invitation to be present and to listen to each other’s stories, ideas and perspectives. Being in the moment and engaging in a conversation that truly matters for our work is a quality we often miss in our rushed and structured work life. A Knowledge Café is like a journey, an open-ended process where the process matters more than the product. The purpose is conversation.

K-cafe 4Photo: Kuno Schläfli, SDC

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Comments to“Knowledge Café for conversations that matter”

  1. Ernst Bolliger says:

    Dear Kuno, Nadia, Mirjam,
    Thank you for the clear and concise description of the knowledge café. As a participant of this event I like to underline: I appreciated this way of engaged human conversation very much.
    I just have a comment regarding the very last sentence: “The purpose is conversation”. Yes, if the purpose is conversation, then the form of a knowledge café is a wonderful form how to do it. But what, if there is another purpose in the foreground?
    In an organisational context I experience most of the time situations, where conversation is not the purpose, but a mean. In most situations where people meet, there is a clear purpose. And I ask myself how to fit a knowledge café as a methodological step (or sequence of steps) into the setting of a workshop or Meeting. What are the steps where true communication matters? What are the steps, where goal oriented thinking or decision making is asked for? In what phase of the event is the knowledge café the most appropriate way of communicating?
    Maybe I am too much an engineer or teacher when I state “form follows function” or “the purpose defines the method”. However I made lots of good experience with this didactical principle.

  2. Nadia von Holzen says:

    Dear Ernst, thanks a lot for your thoughts. I agree fully that the ‘why’ matters and all our thoughts as advisors and as facilitators have to go into the purpose and finding the right means to serve the purpose.
    And still, I feel the idea liberating that conversation as such can – sometimes – be the purpose. I just experienced in an Art oh Hosting workshop how much conversation and space for conversation matters and can and must be the purpose as such. I experienced that open conversations are connecting and that the connections we made were the condition for deep conversations. Learning together (e.g. among facilitators in this AoH workshop) needs space for joint inquiry and deliberation. Learning together needs true and deep conversations.
    Best, Nadia

  3. Dear Nadia, Kuno & Mirjam & Ernst,

    Thank you for hosting The knowledge café and bringing David Gurteen to Berne.

    Having participated in the Art of Participatory Leadership and Art of Hosting, and being one of the hosts of the quarterly SKMF Lausanne Round Tables, hosting meaningful conversations and the power of conversations is known to me.

    Being a participant and open-minded “student” was refreshing. What I enjoyed was the diversity of people who attended and who were willing to listen and understand what this technique could bring them. I learned from most everyone in the room. During the initial small roundtables, conversations were intimate and allowed for perspectives to be shared. Challenging and also refreshing, was the thought of listening without writing!

    I especially enjoyed the final afternoon circle session where there was deep listening with powerful outcomes, hearts opening, not just minds. I would say we somewhat let go of our pre-conceptions to come into a state of “letting come” (Senge et al 2005); letting come what is emerging. At that moment, I linked it to the concept of presencing. I felt a deep sense of presence not only within me, but in the room, around me. Presencing is seen as “becoming totally present – to the larger space or field around us, to an expanded sense of self, and, ultimately to what is emerging through us.”(Senge et al 2005). We then become more aware and can connect to our collective intelligence.

    I see the Knowledge Café as a way to begin conversations that must take place to enable participants to develop a relationship, a trusting relationship where they can co-create and where collective intelligence can emerge. In not being “allowed to” record, it ensures that deep listening is taking place. What may be key is for the host to explicitly ask those in the room to trust the process. I might even see the conversations taking place without tables depending on the situation. It would bring down potential barriers. In my experience, when we are in circles, the space between us provides clarity and openness.

    For more on:
    Presencing and Theory U, including “Presence” see the Presencing Institute:
    Art of Participatory Leadership:
    SKMF Roundtables:

  4. Indeed very inspiring what Ernst comments. I think you are right that there is always a purpose behind conversations. My feeling is that the purpose of Knowledge Café is very often to build trust between people, to create a common understanding or a vision for the future.
    Best wishes,

  5. Adrian Schläpfer says:

    Dear all,
    interesting thoughts, no doubt. I agree with Ernst that in human activity there is usually a purpose and that determines the means. But I also realize that we tend to lose the sense – and usefulness – of spontaneity in our interactions. And in my experience, especially in development cooperation, it has often been the unplanned and unexpected that has proven most creative, innovative … and effective!. Thus, when the idea is just to get people to interact and share, let’s not get carried away with high flying theories and conceptual straight jackets. When I observe the way people interact – or more often don’t – in Coofs and at HO (in “my” times, but still today…), it is often by simple common sense measures that additional space for sharing and mutual learning can be made. E.g. for a Coof by buying garden furniture so that staff can meet informally and crunch their sandwiches while sharing stories and concerns with others. Or in Ausserholligen, by declaring one or two tables at the Cafeteria as “meeting tables” where people are welcome to interact informally and without an agenda, across the borders of divisions and domanains. We don’t need a scientific term for this, but I guarantee that the added value in creativity, surprises, inspiration and curiosity is well worth it.
    Best from Tbilisi,


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