On Cafe Conversations, Connections & Collaboration

Its about conversation and collaboration. Wake up and smell the coffee..

The historian and philosopher Theodore Zeldin – founder of Oxford Muse.com says a lot with few words; “the kind of conversation I am interested in is one where you start it prepared to emerge from it a slightly different person”. As befits a great mind, this is a deceptively simple insight that contains within it a quite a profound truth. How often in business do you engage in a conversation where you are truly open to the ideas of others?

Marketers increasingly appreciate that collaboration, connections and partnerships are critical elements of innovation – but at a recent knowledge Cafe run by David Gurteen – it was the role and importance of conversation that was, the key topic of – the conversation.

As a leading Knowledge Management consultant Gurteen runs Knowledge Cafes in UK and around the world and this week I was lucky to be invited to attend one held by David in London.  The discipline of ‘KM’ emerged from the sometimes insular and complex worlds of business administration, information technology and systems development and I was both curious to understand (and to be honest, slightly apprehensive to see) – how the Cafe concept (originally devised by Elisabeth Lank) – worked. Fortunately, the session lacked squeaky marker pens and there were thankfully no mind maps, lumps of blu-tak and the divvying up of tasks. Gurteen’s Knowledge Cafe concept is a smarter, quicker and potentially far more productive way to encourage creative discussion. Like other good things, from espresso to the first Porsche – its success is based on functional simplicity and speed. Take a question, divide into groups, discuss the question, then move into a new group and keep the conversation going – sharing and discussing as you go. Unlike the traditionally tortured brainstorming (notoriously ineffective, see my blog post on this) – and the dreaded ‘group planning away day’ workshops – the aim of the Cafe is not to appoint group leaders, debate and create instant solutions. But rather to promote a conversation, explore the ideas and share the knowledge. It’s not a pitch, debate,  negotiation or a challenge. Neither a platform, seminar or lecture from senior management. Nor a soap box or stage for show offs. After 60 minutes of speedy, varied conversation across groups and tables everyone stands in a circle to quickly share the new insights and thoughts they’ve gained. With business life often dominated by jargon, complexity and often jumbled communication the direct and focused approach of the Cafe is a refreshing change. It’s  a short, sharp Arabica compared to a tepid mug of Nescafe. It blends the human art of conversation with the science of business thinking. And it works. How so? Firstly, it’s very hard for one person to dominate because the group composition continually changes. The lack of agenda and pressure to develop a unified solution prevents closed thinking.  And as a bonus, it raises a few laughs as well – which cannot be a bad thing. The cafe technique highlighted to me the importance of a collaborative dialogue in partnership development and marketing innovation. We know that connections and relationships are at the heart of creative thinking and commercial innovation (see my previous blogs discussing Matt Ridley and Stephen Johnson etc.) But a smart business connection will not evolve into a true collaboration without a conversation and and dialogue. Unfortunately, many brands and organisations  are often dominated by strong individuals driven by their own agendas, an over confidence and need to shine and win in the spotlight. The ‘not invented here’ thinking is symptomatic of this – its more monologue, than dialogue. A conversational approach is different. Zeldin has another wise comment that comes to mind;

“Conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought. Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards.”Theodore Zeldin

Innovation is  increasingly about building a constructive dialogue with partners. As Beth Comstock, CMO from General Electric said in 2010 – “we used to think we had all the answers now we don’t … For innovation to flourish, we must embrace a new innovation paradigm that promotes collaboration between all players  –  big, small, public, and private partnerships foster creativity and emphasize solutions that meet local needs.”

Its therefore a question of who they choose to partner with, how the relationships are  pioneered and how they are managed, sharpened and improved.  And at the heart of any relationship there must be a good dialogue and as Zeldin says a willingess to emerge from it differently – to dare to create something new.  To learn more about David Gurteen and Knowledge Cafes please visit Gurteen.com For more about marketing partnerships and collaboration see www.benchstone.co.uk

Author: Andrew Armour

Andrew Armour is a marketing and media professional, a specialist in business partnerships and the Founder of the consulting business - Benchstone Limited. His career spans from the UK music industry to the America's Cup, from winning agency pitches to securing key digital content deals. He is married to Viv, lives in Hampshire and works in London.

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