Project Management Institute

A knowledge café: the intangibles of project management


The change from traditional hard systems to a soft systems approach to project management has put an emphasis on learning from projects. The accumulation of experience, the formation of skills, and the creation and development of knowledge through practice, or action, is critical for project success.

This paper introduces the Knowledge Café as a conversational process for fostering constructive dialogue, and accessing collective intelligence in order to facilitate the transfer of tacit knowledge to become explicit and generate new knowledge.


Project management as defined by A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) 4th Edition is “the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet project requirements” (PMI, 2008, p. 16). The application of such a diverse variation of resources in a multitude of contexts so as to create a unique product, service, or results, supports the analogy that project managers are likened to project craftsmen. Project managers as both leader and craftsmen require being intuitive, creative, and novel in their interpretation of best practices and experiences.

The Move from Hard to Soft Systems Approach

Project management is moving away from the hard systems approach as seen in the traditional project industries such as engineering, defense, and constructions and into every industry within the private, public, and voluntary sectors. The focus is now on the soft factors whereby the ability to apply these skills effectively throughout the project cycle will improve the likelihood of project success.

The hard systems approach categorized by the various project management practices provides a prescriptive method to look at projects with guidelines on appropriate processes, tools, and techniques. These can be readily learnt from textbooks and developed further by experience, but without the associated use of appropriate soft skills, project failure can easily arise.

A simple example of this is in the preparation of an all-encompassing project plan taking into account the necessary stakeholders. Without the ability to communicate effectively in order to gather user requirements, and the ability to promote an open and honest environment, stakeholders, including team members, will easily loose respect and expectations diminished.

Further to the application of soft skills within projects, there is also a need to know when best to apply a particular skill at a certain stage within the project context and lifetime. For example, at the initial project planning stages, communications and creativity may be emphasized as stakeholder requirements are gathered and project objectives and scope agreed. Leadership and conflict management are essential at the execution and controlling phases as people and resources are coordinated and monitored to perform project activities in accordance with the project management plan. Finally, communication skills are of utmost importance at the closing stages of the project as project deliverables are presented and accepted, and post project reviews are conducted and documented. Soft skills such as managing and working with the various stakeholders, stress and conflict management, team-building skills, and leadership are acquired through experience and is based on past mistakes and standards in believed best practices.

Project Management Learning

Project management is a learning profession. It is the accumulation of experience, the formation of skills, and the creation and development of knowledge through practice, or action, rather than a specific, difficult task that needs to be designed (Tsui-Auch, 2001). Projects provide a field of learning opportunities and managers need to recognize the learning potential that is usually neglected in traditional project management practice (Sense & Antoni, 2003). Learning within projects does not happen naturally; it is a complex process that needs to be managed and requires deliberate attention, commitment, and continuous investment of resources (Ayas, 1998). The community of practice (COP) model (Lave & Wenger, 1991), however, introduces an informal, continuous, and naturally occurring learning process that can be seen when people participate in social communities. The COP is based on knowledge rather than tasks and processes. It enables its members having a common interest to learn together and strengthen their understanding of their practice or craft (Wenger, 1998).

Explicit and Tacit Knowledge

Knowledge is often described as being either explicit or tacit (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995; Polanyi, 1966; Saint-Onge, 1996). Explicit knowledge generally refers to the codified knowledge that can be precisely and formally articulated, whereas tacit knowledge is personal, context-specific, and therefore difficult to articulate. Tacit knowledge also comprises experience and work knowledge, and involves intangible factors that are embedded in personal beliefs and values.

Much of the knowledge that enables one to deal with actual problems or arouse innovation is tacit and informal. It is disseminated through interaction, story-telling, and informal or collective processes (Tyre & Hippel, 1997). In order for tacit knowledge to become explicit and generate new knowledge, individuals need to work in groups or teams to facilitate the process and enable knowledge to be shared by bringing together different and diverse sources of knowledge (Friedman, 2001).

Knowledge is socially constituted and learning is always mediated by a social process (Macharzina, Oesterle, & Brodel, 2001) and the participation of individuals in social activities (Gherardi & Nicolini, 2001). The emphasis on communications and socialization has been widely recognized as a prime channel to explicate tacit knowledge (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995; Polanyi, 1966; Weick, 1995).

Founded on the origins of experiential learning, whereby knowledge is continuously gained through personal and environmental experiences, conversational learning is the experiential process as it occurs in conversation. Learners move through the cycle of experience, reflection, comprehension, and experimentation, as they construct meaning from their experiences in conversations (Baker, Jensen, & Kolb, 2002).

The Knowledge Café

As a social design process, the Knowledge Café, sometimes known as a conversation café is based on Brown and Isaacs’ (2005) World Café. It makes use of small group technology to promote open, learning conversations with the aim of creating and sharing knowledge amongst people of varied knowledge, backgrounds, and experiences. It is a conversational process for fostering constructive dialogue, accessing collective intelligence, and creating innovative possibilities for action (Brown & Isaacs, 2005).

Knowledge Café Principles

The Knowledge Café (Brown & Isaacs, 2005) principles are outlined as follows:

  • Set the context: Creating flexible boundaries to which the group's collaborative learning unfolds. This requires clarifying the purpose and learning approach, including determining the right participants for diversity of thought.
  • Create hospitable space: Creating a physical space that enables movement and creates a social space that promotes sharing and swapping ideas to enhance collaborative learning.
  • Explore questions that matter: Carefully craft questions to which we do not currently have answers so as to promote innovation and new insight.
  • Encourage everyone's contribution: Emphasis is on contribution rather than criticism, as contribution fosters a sense of community and enriches intelligence of the whole group.
  • Cross-pollinate and connect diverse perspectives: Physically move participants in iterative rounds of conversation to increase richness and intensity of interactions.
  • Listen together for patterns, insights, and deeper questions: Become ambassadors of meaning—listen together and carry forward the essential ideas and insights into progressive rounds of conversation.
  • Harvest and share collective discoveries: The conversation of the whole—the group imagines itself as a system thinking together, listening for deeper wisdom before sharing insights and discoveries.

The Knowledge Café Process

The Knowledge Café invites people into a creative space. It is designed to be open, not intrusive, so that people feel comfortable and are willing to enter into a learning field together. As small intimate conversations build on each other and link with other groups as people move around, cross-pollination of ideas arises. In order to promote this atmosphere of open conversations and constructive dialogue, one should note the Café etiquette or basic guidelines as follows:

  • Foster enquiry rather than debate
  • Contribute your thinking and experience
  • Listen to understand
  • Connect ideas
  • Listen together for insights, patterns and deeper questions
  • Play, doodle, draw
  • Have fun!

The café format is flexible and may be adapted to suit different circumstances. The following are some of the elements often present:

  • Small groups of people (4-5) sit around small café-style tables covered with paper and markers.
  • Participants explore and converse on questions or issues that matter.
  • Participants write or draw key ideas and connections on their sheets of paper to record main insights from their conversation.
  • After a period of conversation (e.g., 20-30 minutes) the small groups breakup, leaving a table host, travelling to other tables, carrying their ideas, insights, and connections into the next round of conversation.
  • The table host welcomes the travelers and briefly shares the ideas exchanged at the table in the previous round. Travelers link and connect ideas from their previous tables.
  • Participants listen together and build on each others’ contributions for insights, patterns, and additional perspectives.
  • After several rounds, the whole group is engaged in a “town-hall” meeting style conversation. Not for reporting back, but for mutual reflection and solicitation of the group's ideas and insights.

It should be emphasized that the Café process is not a decision-making process. It promotes a safe environment to share ideas and a method of creating dynamic networks of conversation that focuses on collective discovery.


Projects are an open field for learning opportunities, but learning within projects does not occur naturally and requires deliberate attention. The knowledge that is required to assist people to deal with actual problems and kindle innovation is tacit and informal.

Knowledge sharing is a social interpersonal practice. The use of informal conversations and the promotion of a collaborative environment supported by knowledge cafés, foster constructive dialogue, evoke collective intelligence, facilitate the conversion of tacit to explicit knowledge, and create innovative possibilities for action.


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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2009, Tim KY Lam
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia



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