The World Cafe Community – Virtual Cafes?

There is a very interesting conversation buzzing around in various locations online about how to do World Cafes online. I am feeling tortured, because I’d like to be fully participating, but due to the “to do list” I’m watching from the side. I think there is much more here than looking at how to do World Cafe gatherings online, but in a larger sense, how do we best utilize convening methods from our F2F practices in a distributed environment – and all the juicy questions that go along with it. For me, some of the key questions include:

  • What methods can “translate” into an online space – why or why not? What do we even mean by “translate?”
  • Are we being strategic and clear about what method to use when – online or off. In other words, lets not do the “move our dysfunctional offline meetings into the online space.” The bottom line is creating interactions that matter – online or off.
  • What are the social implications?
  • What are the technical implications? Existing and potential tools (especially free or low cost tools)?

The main thread about virtual World Cafe’s is on the World Cafe’s community space here –> The World Cafe Community – Virtual Cafes?. Some other side shoots and resources:

Truly, I’d love a month to research this sort of thing and things like useful patterns and practices in online events… and so many other things. Maybe in December…. 🙂

6 thoughts on “The World Cafe Community – Virtual Cafes?”

  1. Wow – this is so important – I am with you, I wish there was more time in the day to help with this – if anyone wants to reach out to me every so often for some input, I would gladly try to contribute in some small way. Perhaps this can be discussed more at the NCDD conference in person… I am really hoping to go this year.

  2. Obviously my search algorithms suck because I’m just finding this post! 🙂

    Thanks for engaging on this point, Nancy! I didn’t even know you were reading the World Café conversations, and I’m delighted to hear what thoughts it triggered in you.

    I’d love to sit around a table, whether it be physical or virtual, and explore the set of questions you raise … not only because (as you say) they are so rich and so juicy, :-), but also because I think they are key to our understanding of the possibilities of online communications. Not only in relation to the formal opportunities for “convening conversations” we were talking about in the World Cafe community thread, but also for our more informal online interactions.

    I continue to feel the powerful potential this medium has in helping us collectively “co-evolve our future/s”, and this conversation feels like an important one to have within that context.

    So, in response to Chris’ point, was there any follow up on this at the NCDD conference this year?

  3. Nancy – We have recently been exploring the concept of a Virtual World Café and one client claims the first successful implementation using a combination of teleconference calls and FacilitatePro web meeting software ( with shared flip charts and brainstorming tools. Here is how this initial experiment worked. There was a group of 45 people and a planned set of seven virtual rooms or café tables each with a different topic area for discussion. First of all the participants joined a central teleconference for an introduction and welcome. Participants also joined online where they had access to a shared agenda with each of the seven topics listed. Participants were invited to select four of the seven topics to participate in and rotated through the four, in whatever order they chose every fifteen minutes. To participate in a chosen topic, the participants clicked on the online line for that virtual café table to see a shared electronic flip chart and add an idea area – here they were able to post their ideas on the topic as well as see and comment on other people’s ideas. In addition participants were asked to dial in to a unique teleconference number for that café table – when they dialed they were welcomed by a table host who helped get the verbal part of the conversation going and managed the allotted time in pretty much the usual way. At the end of fifteen minutes the participants were invited to select another topic and join another table. At the end of the hour everyone was again invited to join a single teleconference in order to hear some closing remarks. The documented portion of the conversation was immediately available as a takeaway.

    This initial experiment seemed to have worked very well and bridge the virtual divide while maintaining most of the qualitative elements of the World Café experience. Some lessons that I took away from hearing about this included:
    • Organizing the virtual rooms or café tables around a series of planned topics helped people plan their time and participation.
    • The value of a table host who stayed at the same room throughout, to hold the space, facilitate introductions and gently guide the conversation around the virtual table.
    • The value of a written as well as verbal component – capturing ideas individually or as table scribe in a shared online flip chart as well as listening to each person talk.
    • The difficulty of typing and listening at the same time and the value of perhaps providing quite time to type some initial thoughts and then go around the virtual table to hear from each person.
    • New guidelines for the conversation – an updated version of the World Café ground rules applicable to a conversation where we cannot all see each other. Simple adjustments such as speaking one’s name before commenting, giving people your attention and not multi-tasking, drawing a virtual table on a notepad so that you can visualize who else is in your conversation, managing air time, etc.
    • The possibility of continuing the conversation online after the session – keeping the shared online flip charts alive for people to return to, re-read and add further comments upon reflection.
    • The value of taking away a document of the conversation.
    • Thinking through the options for anonymous versus attributed online input and how this shifts the dynamic of the conversation, positively or negatively or just differently.
    • The simplicity of using a series of teleconference numbers to manage participation a the different virtual café tables. The possibility of using newly emerging teleconference services that include options for breakout groups.

    I would be very interested to engage with anyone in a continuing conversation about Virtual World Café and how to create the right space/setting; how to plan and facilitate such an event; how to balance verbal conversation and online participation and the value of each.
    Julia Young,, San Francisco, CA

  4. Dear Julia,

    Thanks so much for your contribution to this conversation! I can feel your excitement through the electronic air-waves, and it sparks my own – I love to further & deepen this inquiry. Following up on your invitation, I’d love to be in touch, either in person (I too live in the SF bay area) or online. If you’d like to get together, please contact me:

    I’m drawn to respond to a couple of the points you made here – first to let you know that there have been many ongoing and one-off implementations of online World Cafes using a variety of electronic media, reaching back almost 10 years to Bo Gyllenpalm’s experiments in the classroom and they have all been successful to varying degrees, just as face to face World Cafes are. So we have a rich base to draw from.

    I appreciate your articulation of the lessons learned from your experience – it would be great for those of us pioneering virtual World Cafes or other conversational formats to similarly map out what we’re learning so we can profit from each others’ experiences. There are many areas of my own learning that overlap some of what you’ve written here and it would be fascinating to evolve our thinking at the collective level.

    Can you tell us more about the software you describe, specifically the graphic reflection and interaction offered by a shared whiteboard (or am I misunderstanding what you mean by an “electronic flip chart”?). I’d be curious about the price point for FacilitatePro because while the whiteboard sharing feature has been available on the high end (and very expensive) World Cafes we’ve done with corporate groups using professional meeting software, it hasn’t been easily integrated for the more widely accessible Cafes, on Skype for example.

    I’ve hosted some wonderful World Cafes in Second Life lately – I just finished one we called the Triple World Cafe :-), which was a World Cafe held simultaneously in Second Life, on Skype and face to face in Halifax – we coordinated our timing and wove the introductions and harvests together along with visual representation of the other Cafes in each one so we all felt we were part of something much bigger. The work in Second Life is very exciting to me as it opens up a whole realm of shared experience not possible in other media, but the visual recording piece remains an issue there too, and of course there are other accessibility concerns with Second Life, where the learning edges of engagement are not financial but technological in the sense of comfort level and the need for basic skills. Several of us have been developing “welcome” services that facilitate that learning curve and have proved significant in making virtual World Cafes accessible to more people who want to participate.

    One thing that made me curious about the example you shared was the effects of having different conversations at different tables – as that’s a very different model than the traditional World Cafe format, where everyone works the same question/s in an intimate setting and receives diversity of thought with the different table changes, when after 3 or more rounds we harvest by collectively sharing the patterns and threads of connection we’ve noticed among the conversations. What happens in the collective harvest when there are a number of different topics being discussed? Is there a similar noticing of threads and patterns between all the topics, or within individual topics? What made you choose this way of working and what have you learned from it?

    I’m fascinated by the differences in how the World Cafe design principles work in both synchronous and asynchronous conversations – the asynchronous conversations being something absolutely new and unique and are really only available through the online medium, so I think attention to how we “translate” them as Nancy mentioned in her original post would be well repaid.

    Julia, are you a World Cafe host yourself? And are you part of the FacilitatePro team?
    If so, please get in touch, as we have been actively experimenting with software that can support widely applied World Cafes, and if you feel your experiments have produced a great result, that would be of interest to us.

    Thanks so much, again, for sharing your experiences here on Nancy’s forum.

    Warm Wishes,


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