As the Clinical Librarian representative on HEE’s KLS Library Workforce Workstream Reference Group, Sarah Gardner (Sarah G) was seeking the views of her peers on two topics which were going to be explored at an HEE Workforce and Research Round Table event in May 2022.  Fellow Yorkshire & Humber (YoHHLNet) committee member Sarah Hennessy (Sarah H) is YoHHLNet’s knowledge café guru and she was curious whether we could use MS Teams to hold a virtual knowledge café for this purpose.


The two Sarahs met to discuss and test the functionality of MS Teams for this purpose.  Questions were settled on, and assigned to four breakout rooms, with the intention of collecting participants’ thoughts in the chat function within each room.  We intended for participants to be rotated through each room, adding to the chat with their contributions.


As a failsafe, Sarah G created a Padlet which contained the questions plus an additional prompt for feedback on the whole concept of the virtual knowledge café.  The date was advertised on regional email lists and via word of mouth, and 12 people signed up in advance, with 8 people able to attend on the day.


What worked well?

Pairing up: having two people host the event felt beneficial, we allocated a talking host (Sarah G) and a technical host (Sarah H) so that the flow of the session wasn’t interrupted with the technical bits of allocating people to break out rooms, resending the log in links, helping with audio, etc.


Size of group: We had a handy sized group, this meant we could allocate each person to their break out rooms in advance, ensuring each person attended each room and also mix with different people as much as possible. We considered random allocation but thought people might end up in the same room twice and so opted to do it manually instead. We had the plan written down so that time to move people between groups was minimised during the event.


Timekeeping: a benefit of online over face to face is that you can keep timekeeping under control, you close down the break-out rooms and people automatically come back to the main room.


A ‘green room’: while participants were in break-out rooms the Sarahs could meet in the main meeting room to gauge how things were going and do some dynamic adjustments to the session. It was easy to dip in and out of each breakout room to check on participants. Everyone came back to the main meeting between break-outs.


Engagement: Attendees willingly shared their ideas and thoughts. We encouraged participants to pop ideas in the chat so that (in theory) the next visitors to the room could see what had previously been discussed, or use the Padlet to capture additional thoughts while they were “between” breakout rooms.


Convenient: we all know the benefits now of not having to travel to an event.  Full chat records were available in MS Teams after the event, and Padlet makes it easy to export responses into a spreadsheet for analysis.


What would we do differently?

We had hoped that new visitors to a room would be able to see the previous visitors’ chat comments. In the event they were visible in the main MS Teams application, but not the active chat rooms. We’re keen to test if the chat would remain visible to new participants if we were to use a separate Teams link for each room instead.  This would remove time consuming manual allocation and also enable people to choose which room to go into and when. They could then skip the rooms where they might feel unable to contribute, stay as long as they wished in each room and move on when they felt have contributed all they could.


Padlet was great for sharing and building on ideas, but it was hard to see on a laptop as it showed as a squashed screen, although it looked fine on a desktop. We received some feedback from attendees that they found it difficult to engage in the conversation and make written contributions at the same time and so we’re not sure how much of the conversation was actually captured because of that. The focus of a knowledge café should be the conversation rather than the recording of it, and so we’d consider this for future sessions.


We’ve considered having a scribe at the sessions to note down themes and act as a time keeper too to announce when 10 minutes have passed; people don’t necessarily have to move at that point, but it might help to notify of the time so as not to miss a chance to join other rooms. However scribes can also inadvertently change the tone of people’s comments.  It was useful to have a little time between each room change to gather thoughts in the larger group and note down some themes.  Perhaps it would work better if we increased the time between room changes to harvest and record the themes of the conversations for future sessions rather than during the conversation.


We’re aware that attempts to record contributions move things away from a true knowledge café concept.  There are also the technical difficulties to be considered, e.g. who will have permissions to let people into an MS Teams meeting that’s been set up by someone else. Perhaps a switch to a different platform would solve this issue, but it remains to be explored.


On the whole?

We tested the functionality before the session as far as we were able, had 3 planning meetings of about 30 mins to plan and prepare and so felt ready to facilitate the session.  We received positive feedback from attendees who liked the informality and friendliness of the session, along with the convenience and the mixed groups. Also that 4 different ‘rooms’ was ideal for the time allocated.


Feedback for improvement included a preference to leave a room when ready to and skip different rooms where they felt they had little to contribute. Also the aforementioned difficulty of recording and engaging in a conversation at the same time.

Other interesting feedback included consideration of whether people are more comfortable and more likely to share in a virtual or physical environment, with mixed thoughts put forward.  We’ve learnt a lot about the process, advantages and limitations of running a virtual knowledge café and would be happy to chat with anyone who’d like to know more.


Sarah Gardner
Clinical / Outreach Librarian at Doncaster & Bassetlaw Teaching Hospitals NHSFT

Sarah Hennessy
Library and Knowledge Service Manager at South West Yorkshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust