GKR Article

Hosting grassroot conversations between knowledge activists

The Global Knowledge Review - January 2005




Ton Zijlstra
I believe that the effectivity and success of anyone in a knowledge economy is based on two things. First, taking personal responsibility for one’s actions. And two, taking an activist attitude. Activists take their own actions seriously even if to others the results seem negligeable at first. (Think of the story where a woman throws one starfish out of thousands washed upon shore back into the sea, when asked why she's doing that as it is clearly not making a difference, and she answers that it did just make a difference to that one starfish.)

Activists make small incremental steps towards their goals whenever they see the opportunity, starting from the self. Grassroots beginnings that may or may not turn into having wider impacts.

In recent years I have increasingly become annoyed with the usual conference format. The value of conferences is in the conversations with others, with one or the other key note serving as conversation kick-starter, but it often seems like organizers deliberately try to marginalize that value. Days long programmes of back to back presentations, small coffee corners with bad food and lukewarm coffee, and hardly any power outlets or freely accessible internet allowing me to share impressions with my communities. The same communities that organizers try to provide added value for.

Out of this frustration and the still strong need to be able to meet face to face for meaningfull conversation, grew BlogWalk. BlogWalks are very small scale, practically zero-budget, gatherings of twenty-odd people, who may or may not know eachother from on-line encounters (in this case usually through our weblogs). Themes in the five meetings that have been held in the past year ranged from self directed learning, and weblogs as a knowledge management tool, to growing towards collective action from loosely knit on-line networks. The five meetings took place in cities in just as many countries, such as London, Vienna, and Umea in northern Sweden. During one day, in an Open Space format, conversations are held and key observations, questions, problems, etc, are written down on sticky notes. Out of these results the group teases patterns of meaning, and people may commit to courses of action. A key element in Open Space meetings is that whatever happens in the way of structure, is because the group feels the need for it at that time. Lilia Efimova (Telematica Institute, Netherlands), Sebastian Fiedler (Augsburg University, Germany) and me have been hosting these meetings with a lot of pleasure, involving 70 people from 16 nations in face to face conversations. That is a breadth and reach we would probably only have succeeded at in one large scale event with considerably more effort and resources. Since the start of BlogWalk, next to participants gaining new insights and expanding their social networks, researchers met and teamed up for research and writing, business ideas were tested and taken further, and the beginnings of more spin offs are visible. It is precisely that sort of effects we aim for with these salon-like get-togethers: People finding likeminded others in a trusted environment to take action together.

The comments of participants tell us a tale of people getting motivated by the very intense conversations, while experiencing a relaxed atmosphere at the same time. One of the participants in our Nuremberg BlogWalk remarked "Hard work never felt this much fun." Meanwhile we have tried out the format in different settings. There too people responded very positively. We did a workshop on at KM Europe similar to a BlogWalk meeting and one participant said that this had been the one meeting that made it worth her while to come to Amsterdam from South Africa. It is impressions like these which lead me to believe that you could benefit from this format as well. We will be glad to share our stories with you and help you start grass roots conversations that lead to action for yourself.

My weblogging friend Johnnie Moore recently said that being able to host meaningfull conversations might very well be a critical skill in the knowledge economy. Are you a knowledge activist that has that skill?

Video: Nick Milton on Best Practice

Nick Milton on Best Practice.

Media Information: Image

If you are interested in Knowledge Management, the Knowledge Café or the role of conversation in organizational life then you my be interested in this online book I am writing on Conversational Leadership


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