World Cafe as a research process

I recently used World Café for a focus group to gain insights into the experience of international students at a university. While it wasn’t a formal research project (the focus was more on marketing), I can see that it World Cafés would work very well as a research methodology.

The following is the process we used. There were only nine participants so we had three tables of three people each of which had a staff member who recorded the conversation and who could probe if needed.

The questions we asked were

  1. ‘Tell Us Your Story’ – how did you come to be studying at the University?
  2. What has been positive about your experience of studying in Newcastle
  3. What has been less positive about your experience of studying in Newcastle and how could it be improved?
  4. How could we attract other international postgraduate students to the University of Newcastle?

After each question they changed groups.

For the first question, each person had around 5 minutes to tell their story. The staff member asked quite a few questions to help ensure we had stories with plenty of depth. After each of them had told their story, we then asked them to find some common themes which were reported back to the whole group. For the next two questions, they had around 10 minutes for each question and then they were invited to identify three pieces of gold from their conversation (which were reported back to the whole group). For the final questions, there were two conversations again of around 10 minutes (with people changing table in between) before they brought back three pieces of gold.

Besides the first question, where the staff member was encouraged to ask questions to help draw the students out, we encouraged the staff to mainly listen and to leave the students to have the conversation themselves. I’m not sure if there were any problems with staff moving from asking questions to just listening but it seemed to work OK. In the first question, the students might have become used to the staff member being fairly actively involved, and it might have taken a bit of time for them to readjust to the staff taking a back seat. I think some of the staff found it a bit challenging not getting involved, and at times they did ask questions. Essentially though, it didn’t seem to be a big issue. I generally find people are pretty adaptable.

One of the advantages of using World Café was that the students, rather than the researchers, were responsible for the conversations. They were able to ask questions, seek clarification and draw out similarities and differences. By asking the students to identify pieces of gold, they helped with some of the data analysis and helped identify key themes. Because the conversations were recorded, we could still listen back to the conversations for more in-depth analysis.

I’m looking forward to trying the process in a more formal research project. It worked well for this type of exploration. I think the third questions could have been refined a bit, but the flow of questions worked well, the students seemed to enjoy their conversations and it provided some useful insights. It could work well with less questions so that they could have more conversations about the one issue.

While it could be done without a researcher at each table (just audio recording them), I think it was useful having someone there to monitor the recording, and hearing the conversations might help deepen the analysis of the transcripts. (Being part of a focus group is quite a different experience to just reading a transcript.)

With this type of a process, the researchers have to give up some control and need to allow the participants take the conversation where they want to. This will work better for some research topics than others. It seems to me that it would work particularly well for topics exploring people’s experiences and beliefs. For example, Transition Newcastle is hoping to host a state gathering of Transition groups and I would love to use this process as a way to explore the challenges and successes of the groups. Not only would it allow the participants to share their experiences, but we would be able to collate information that might be helpful to other groups.

I would love to hear from anybody who is using World Café as a research process.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

  1. What is a World Café?
  2. A World Cafe in a school – a step-by-step description
  3. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  4. Ethics and community engagement

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
This entry was posted in Facilitation & teaching and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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