Café Seminar / World café

The Café Seminar / World Café is a creative process for facilitating collaborative dialogue and the sharing of knowledge and ideas to create a living network of conversation and action. The purpose of the cafe seminar is to achieve a more profound and common understanding of a technology or a technological problem.

On the basis of experience exchange, the cafe seminar must generate new knowledge and understanding about the subject. The seminar seeks to create a common understanding and a common point of departure for assessing the technology or the technological problem, and seminars can mark the beginning of a longer, beneficial, ongoing process. It is not the aim of the cafe seminar to generate more concrete results such as action plans or remedies.

In simple terms, the goal is to solve 80% of the problem in 20% of the time – and the rest is not dealt with at the café seminar / world café itself. It is all about listening, understanding one another and thus gaining greater insight and common understanding of the technological problem. Even though café seminars rarely result in actual action proposals, they often provide common assessments and recommendations.

The café seminar / world café method is first and foremost based on dialogue. It is an informal forum in which participants through common dialogue test views and opinions, exchange experiences and develop visions and ideas. On the one hand, it is a purposeful, focused and effective process, and on the other, a process that takes place in a pleasant atmosphere that promotes open and free dialogue about an important and often complex technological issue. Participants work in small groups in a joint forum and share knowledge across the tables.

As far as possible, the café seminar / world café should take place in an authentic café environment. The guests (participants) should sit at small cafe tables with room for 5 people at each table. The atmosphere should be friendly and relaxed in order to facilitate dialogue. This creates room for people to listen to one another, room to find questions before seeking the answers and room for closer study of the problem. At regular intervals (20-30 minutes) the participants move to a new table. One table host remains and summarises the previous conversation to the new table guests. Thus the proceeding conversations are cross-fertilised with the ideas generated in former conversations with other participants. At the end of the process the main ideas are summarised in a plenary session and follow-up possibilities are discussed.

Café seminars are rooted in the assumption that innovation and insight are cultivated through human relationships. Guests are presumed to possess all the necessary seminar resources, and for a cafe seminar to be successful, all participants are therefore required to take active part in the dialogue process.

The café seminar / world café process is particularly useful to engage large groups (larger than 12 persons) in an authentic dialogue process (Groups of 1200 have been conducted!) as well as to generate input, share knowledge, stimulate innovative thinking and explore action possibilities around real life issues and questions to engage people in authentic conversation – whether they are meeting for the first time or have established relationships with each other.

The direct result of a café seminar is first and foremost the dialogue generated by the seminar itself. The common, more profound understanding of the problem, together with the new knowledge, ideas and visions that are generated, are the seminar’s most important results. These may prove difficult to document but it is nonetheless important to try. Guests are responsible for ongoing documentation in the form of postcards or boards. These results must subsequently be typed up and published in a report or as part of a report. If the cafe seminar is to produce concrete assessments or recommendations, these can be asked for at the end of the seminar.
In addition, one or more persons can provide an ongoing description of the seminar in words and pictures. This can take the form of a cafe magazine which can either be sent to the guests shortly after the end of the seminar or handed out at the end of the seminar. A cafe seminar magazine can help guests to remember thoughts, ideas and insights they had during the seminar.

Through experience exchange and the intensive work with the technological subject, guests gain a deeper understanding of and new insight into the topic and its surrounding problems. The seminar is also an excellent place for developing one’s network.

A café seminar / world café can be quite cheap and relatively quick to arrange. The method is well suited to sensitive subjects as it provides a relaxed forum where “the cat can be let out of the bag”. The method is also well suited to any number of scenarios, especially where experience exchange is the goal. Types of questions that are well suited to cafe seminars are Open, but specific and well-defined questions of relevance – where the answers are not given in advance.

Further reading:

A detailed description of the process based on the way as it has been conducted in the United States can be read in the Participatory Methods Toolkit - A practitioner's methodological manual.

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