The Importance of Place

Why meet in a cafe?

Cafes are places you drop into and they are therefore ideal fior a drop-in action learning process. Cafes are also places you arrange to meet people at, so they also serve that purpose – for more formal, scheduled meetings.

We find that about half of those who have attended DIAL (a drop in action learning group gathering)  meetings since they began prefer to drop in, and like the informality of the cafe. The other half have the dates in their diaries and treat the meeting just like any other “in the diary” meeting.

Getting around the table allows a group to meet and discuss, focusing into the group, just as in  any more formal meeting room. The difference is that the atmosphere tends to be more relaxed and informal. One participant describes it as an “atmosphere of flow”. There’s often art up on the walls and the cafe population is a mix of regulars and those dropping in. The general lack of permanence of people alongside the performance of the place itself seems to give permission for people to experiment with their ideas, to test out thoughts – feeling secure in the  place that is always there, yet encouraged to be creative by the transient nature of the cafe “population.”

Cafes buzz. Cafes encourage flow. Cafes are places of creativity. There is often art up on the walls – some perhaps for sale, and this art changes as it is replaced over time. People come and go. People meet to catch up, to talk, and to make decisions. Cafes are ideal places for action learning because, all around you are people thinking, doing, reflecting and trying out stuff.

Cafes are places where you can get good coffee, good tea and have a treat, or eat something healthy. Cafes are places where conversation is enriched by good food and drink. A good cafe welcomes not just the people, but also the energy they bring. Cafes can energise and motivate.

Cafes are in the heart of larger places – localities and communities, towns and cities. Cafes remind us that we and our work are part of a bigger picture. Cafes can help us find perspective and context.

Cafes can overcome over-formality and the shyness that can be invoked by a formal meeting room.

Cafes are special “places”. We often have favourite cafes. Cafes are where work and play often meet.

Cafes often offer good internet connection and places to plug in. They are also full of tables to place a notebook or a tablet on and do some writing. They are places to read, to think, to reflect.

Over the last two years of the DIAL project we have also identified some of the limitations of some cafes:

– noise bleed from other tables and from overloud espresso machines

– crampedness around tables

– the danger of being overheard by people on nearby tables, compromising confidentiality

– the informality can sometimes create a shyness to share more formal issues and problems

Overall, we’ve found that groups find a way of tuning into the spaces. Also selection of a fairly spacious cafe is important. Action learning participants tend to find the right volume, lean into the group when needed, and also vary volume if they want to not be overheard.

So far, the benefits have outweighed the problems.

Some cafes are more “corporate” in design and feel, others are quirkier and more “arty”. Some are indoors, some outside. Some have upstairs areas and places to “cordon off”. Some cafes will book you out a separate room that still has the cafe feel.

We are in the process of collecting feedback from participants to really delve into the anatomy of cafe meeting.

Questions for research include:

What are the unique aspects of cafe meeting compared to meeting in more formal spaces?

How does action learning specifically suit cafe meeting and working?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of different kinds of cafes?

What other informal meeting spaces lend themselves to DIAL?

How does distraction aid and inhibit creative and innovative thinking?