Book Reviews

King Arthur's Round Table

Reviewed by
Art Stellar
President, High/Scope Educational Research Foundation,
Ypsilanti, Mich.

Joining the trend of reaching back into history to derive lessons for today's organizational life, King Arthur's Round Table: How Collaborative Conversations Create Smart Organizations becomes a metaphor for improving collaboration and communication.

The legendary King Arthur made a simple innovation by moving from the traditional long table with the king at the head to a round-shaped table. The assumption is that King Arthur had a deeper motive in mind than altering the interior decorating style of the times.

According to author David Perkins, a Harvard professor of education, King Arthur "wanted the upside of a thoughtful community. His knights would converse as equals—proposing, challenging, debating, reaching accords and solving the problems of the kingdom. The round table not only symbolized this collaborative commitment but made it easier.”

Before rushing to cancel all orders for non-round tables, readers should know that Perkins concludes that King Arthur's round table is only a small step for addressing what he has coined "The Lawnmower Paradox." As Perkins describes it: "Pooling physical effort is usually rather easy. Pooling mental effort is usually rather hard." Starting with such simple ideas, the author reminds his readers that throughout history people have been searching for ways to blend individual intelligence into organizational intelligence.

Cognitive science can help untangle parts of this ongoing puzzle with theory and limited research as highlighted in this book. To present a methodology for fostering more collaborative organizations, Perkins also draws on biology, Shakespeare, news stories about corporate management, models used by the armed forces and his own work. His bottom line is that improved personal communications in both formal and informal processes can make for more effective organizations.

Readers will find much to reflect upon in this work about how to create collective knowledge in organizations. There is no roadmap, recipe or 10 steps to success. Some may be disappointed that it is up to them to determine how to apply these ideas within their organizations.

(King Arthur's Round Table: How Collaborative Conversations Create Smart Organizations by David Perkins, John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, N.J., 2003, 274 pp. with index, $29.95 hardcover)