Beyond conversation

2015

It can’t have escaped the notice of anyone who stays abreast of trends in management thinking that storytelling is very much in vogue and conversation the new leadership panacea.

As one who has kissed the Blarney Stone and is endowed with the gift of gab, I appreciate the usefulness of a good chat. However, I am not convinced that conversation alone creates the organizational value espoused by so many pundits.

Of course conversation, by its very nature, can be an excellent communication tool, but if that’s all there was to it, our knowledge workers could be replaced by a pandemonium of talking parrots.

In my experience conversation alone often does not create value. In fact, I would argue that many workplace conversations are distracting, disruptive or even damaging. The magic of the water cooler metaphor is likely a myth perpetuated by those who would rather discuss sports scores than solve the challenges that keep executives awake at night. But is there a way to harass the power of speech, that trait many researchers suggest differentiates humans from other animals, in way that creates value?

The answer is absolutely. The trick is to move from casual conversation to deliberate dialogue. For more than a decade I have been experimenting with ways to facilitate this transformation. The catalyst for this examination was my firsthand experiences as part of some incredibly thought-provoking communities of practice.

Communities and cafés

Few arenas offer the knowledge exchange opportunities that are commonplace in high performing communities. Passionate people, both knowledge seekers and knowledge provides, gather physically or virtually, to engage in focused discussion. The result a is trusted environment in which people freely share knowledge.

I have tried to replicate this environment in a variety of organizational settings but with little success. Regrettably the baggage of hidden agendas and selfish desire by some to hold knowledge ransom breaches the trusted environment that seems so necessary for high fidelity discussion and ultimately knowledge exchange.

A few years into my dialogue journey I participated in an interesting conversation-focused event facilitated by David Gurteen. The so-called Gurteen Knowledge Café builds on the solid foundation of the World Café by focusing on the concept of knowledge sharing to support decision making. A Knowledge Café commences with a short presentation on the subject of interest followed by three rounds of conversation in groups of three or four. I have participated in several of these and have always been impressed with the rich discussions that ensue.

As powerful as the Knowledge Café can be, I have had mixed results in implementing the methodology. The major obstacle for me has been the selection of the presenter for the opening talk. In my experience, the type of person worthy of delivering this sermon is often difficult to secure. On the rare occasion when a capable connoisseur agreed to speak, very predictably they would run over their allocated 15 or 20 minutes.

As a result, the time for the most important segment, the small group discussion, was reduced, which in turn diminished the knowledge transfer. More concerning, though, was the impact of the sage on stage remaining for the group discussions. Much like the Hawthorne effect, the sage’s presence invariably impacted the conversation.

For many years I have been using TED talks in graduate classes as a way to spark debate. TED’s raison d'être of ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’ attracts a wide variety of experts who are keen to promote their view. The result is short, punchy videos that frequently challenge the status quo and therefore are a perfect catalyst for dialogue.

Dialogue rendezvous: the sageless stage

Almost by accident, I discovered that rather than just showing the TED talk and hoping for a debate, I could piggyback on the benefits of the Knowledge Café methodology. After some experimentation I found a nice balance and the ‘Dialogue Rendezvous’ was born.

For the record, the name is nowhere near as important as the approach! That said, I have found it useful to have a label when sharing the idea with others, simply as a way to differentiate it. The idea is simply an evolution of the café methodologies, an evolution that I know others are using.

The most unique aspect of the Dialogue Rendezvous is the Sageless Stage. By using videos as the catalyst for the dialogue, the impact of having the guru in the room is eliminated. As exciting as it is to engage with well-known keynote speakers, renowned academics, or corporate leaders, the reality is many participants become star struck and do not challenge the words of wisdom. The Dialogue Rendezvous methodology ensures that the participants hear from experts, but are free to engage in dialogue with fellow participants outside the earshot of the expert.

The use of videos offers two additional advantages. First, the length of the video is known and therefore the risk of running over the advertised time is minimized. Few things disrupt knowledge transfer as much as participants watching their watches because the event has run long. Second, and almost certainly most importantly, the breadth and depth of available topics becomes virtually limitless. Through trial and error I have found a number of TED talks that are excellent prompts for a great dialogue.

To date the Dialogue Rendezvous has been used primarily with university students, as part of management workshops, and at conferences. The results have been very promising and support the notion that conversation that is guided and deliberate can reap incredible benefits.

Most organizations do not need more talking parrots, but rather parliaments of wise owls who learn from thoughtful debate. The Dialogue Rendezvous moves the focus from talking for talking sake to discourse that creates knowledge and supports decision-making.

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About The Author

John Girard
John Girard

John P. Girard, Ph.D. is a professor, storyteller, and adventurer. He holds the Peyton Anderson Endowed Chair in Information Technology at Middle Georgia State College’s School of Information Technology and is founder and Chief Knowledge Strategist of Sagology, a firm dedicated to connecting people, facilitating collaboration, learning, and knowledge sharing through keynotes, workshops, and consulting.