posted 18 May 2005 in Volume 8 Issue 8
The knowledge: Madelyn Blair
Working with stories is a skill Madelyn Blair has developed throughout her career, and one that looks set to bring huge changes to global organisations, not least the United Nations. Inside Knowledge gets the inside story on her current work and aspirations. By Sandra Higgison
Of the many stories unfolding around us, there is one in particular that is set to breathe new life into one of the world’s most important institutions: the United Nations. Madelyn Blair is weaving a band of living stories that she hopes will regenerate and revitalise the organisation by taking its people back to its roots. As she talks about her career and inspirations, Blair offers privileged insights into this project and others that draw on her long-term experiences with knowledge management, information systems and narrative techniques.
Blair works to improve organisational performance. Her approach, however, differs greatly to the top-down initiatives many companies pursue, as she focuses and builds on the power of individuals by capturing, and learning from, their knowledge. The breadth of her experience has given her an in-depth understanding of what makes people successful, while giving her an appreciation of the true value of knowledge management and narrative techniques within business settings. Indeed, Blair sprinkles our conversation with stories, which include the background to her potentially revolutionary work with the UN.
Growing up on a farm in
Having worked with several large institutions, Blair set up her own consulting business, Pelerei, in 1988, and is today focused on three main areas that all involve coaching people to help others learn. “I have a set of clients who have realised that their experts need to convey some of their knowledge to others in the organisation,” she says. “Traditionally, these experts have stood in front of a group and talked through their work with the help of a PowerPoint presentation. That’s not learning. One area of my work is in helping these experts understand that it’s not how much information you convey, but how much people actually grasp. I bring different modalities into their discussions and presentations that really work.”
Blair’s second main area of work began about ten years ago when she was teaching people to find information on the web. It has since developed into a programme for individuals to manage their personal knowledge. “I ran this course for about five years and then Google came along. After that I just pointed everyone there,” she says. “As part of this work, I began to explore how participants kept current in their fields and what it means to personally manage your knowledge. I took their strategies, learning principles, changes in technology and the effects of group dynamics to develop a process that creates what I call a personal-knowledge programme.” From this, individuals can build an understanding of their business’s needs, their personal strengths and objectives, and the behaviours they need to keep those strengths alive.
The third major area – aside from her project with the UN – is her work as a narrative practitioner. About seven years ago, she was invited to a think-tank held by the International Storytelling Centre in
Blair’s instinct proved correct. The think tank included representatives from Harvard and Disney, and the World Bank’s Steve Denning, one of the most recognised storytelling practitioners, and helped germinate some of the earliest thinking about the use of story in business. “Once I’d become aware of what story really was, I began to see it in all sorts of places and started to understand how to bring it into different settings.” Blair finds that storytelling can be extremely useful in many situations, but stresses that it is not the next silver bullet. “You must always begin with the business problem and let it guide how and when story may become part of the solution.”
As Blair illustrates with tales of her own work, stories are a versatile and powerful tool when focused on a particular business issue. Through her understanding of how individuals and groups interact, Blair describes how storytelling can help build teams. “Most of the literature related to team building focuses on creating new groups, but many already exist,” she says. “How do you bring a new member into an existing team so that they are brought up to speed quickly?” To find an answer, Blair carried out research with about 30 firms around the
Narrative techniques also feature heavily in her current work with another client to uncover the organisation’s vision statement. “I’ve already told the group that we’re going to begin with their stories, because no vision is viable unless it is connected to where the business is today,” she says. I ask whether this approach can also apply to those organisations that are no longer rooted in their original vision statements. “The challenge is to get them reconnected,” she replies.
Indeed, this is the challenge that lies at the heart of Blair’s work at the UN, which she describes as being right up her street. “I want to revitalise the United Nations,” she says, decisively. “The UN is very important in this world and its ongoing denigration does nothing to serve its purposes. If you read the preamble to the UN Charter, it is filled with remarkable words, like ‘good neighbour’, ‘peace’, ‘tolerance’ and ‘justice’. Although most of the founders are no longer with us, their words remain. Telling stories inspired by these words helps listeners see new life in them as if the founders were still with us.”
Although it has taken her two years to get the project off the ground, she now has three ambassadors from heavyweight countries committed to the project. Armed with a video camera and the charter, Blair listens to and records the ambassadors telling personal stories motivated by the principles behind the global institution. “If we can explore and rediscover what the words really mean to people and continue feeding these stories back into the organisation, we can keep the UN alive.” So far everybody she has invited has agreed to participate. “It’s wonderful. They all light up and immediately understand what I’m talking about. The stories I’ve heard so far are phenomenal.” Blair’s intention is to take a short video clip to Kofi Annan, general secretary of the UN, to ask if more ambassadors can be convinced to share their experiences in this way.
To help other people develop these narrative skills and techniques to become practitioners, Blair and Paul Costello, founder of the Centre for Narrative Studies and expert in narrative therapy, run a detailed and interactive workshop. Delegates become acquainted with the principles behind the use of stories in different settings and are introduced to the narrative room, a tool to create dialogue. The narrative room involves a teller and a listening panel. The panel analyses a story by breaking it down layer by layer from within, while maintaining the teller’s permission to continue at all times. Stepping out of a story in this way can reveal new perspectives and interpretations that may otherwise have remained hidden.
Helping over-worked, target-driven senior managers understand the value of these techniques can be a real challenge for narrative practitioners. Blair is familiar with the problem and offers her advice. “If I think story is relevant to the business then I may ask about the last time the manager gave a presentation. I ask them to tell me about the message they had to convey, how they gave it and how it went. They soon begin to see that the audience truly connected with them when they gave an example, which is a story.” As Blair says, all organisations can make use of these techniques. “I see stories as a vehicle for working with social systems, and every company is a social system.”
To support her work, Blair relies on a range of methodologies, including one of her longest held philosophies: appreciate enquiry. “Some people look at it as a process, I see it as a philosophy that informs everything I do,” she says. “It is the basis for how I construct surveys, conduct interviews, collect feedback and design courses.” Blair admits that appreciative enquiry also affects her personally and could partly explain why, when asked to describe herself, she says “terribly curious”. “You get into the habit of exploring what works, what you’d do differently and then moving on. It frees a lot of energy as it helps set my sights on what works and where I want to go.”
After working with a number of large institutions, Blair realised that she could achieve more by working as an independent consultant. Seventeen years later, Pelerei is still in business, which makes Blair justifiably proud. The key to her success, she says, is that the basic principle behind her work has always remained the same: to meet people’s needs. Most of her work has been dedicated to what is now called knowledge management, whether through the development of information systems or communities of practice. “I love what is happening to knowledge management as people have started to realise that it involves more than simply providing access to information,” she says. “The idea of creating environments where people are encouraged to learn is central to KM and my own work.”
This concept ties in with Blair’s current focus on personal knowledge management. “While I was teaching people how to find information, I was also learning how they kept themselves current and discovered a link between knowledge and success,” she says. “I found that the people who really managed their personal knowledge were the most successful, which also holds true for companies and countries.” Blair is now dedicated to helping organisations understand and act on these findings. “I want to support companies as they embed personal-knowledge-management programmes in management structures and use stories as part of this. The package I’m working on can be used by individuals and between a manager and staff to help build their capabilities and meet the business’s needs.”
As I re-read the notes from our conversation, I’m conscious of how much I have been unable to convey about the person behind the story. Leaving her passion for mountain climbing in the Schwangunks (a small range in New York state, south of the Adirondacks), her most cherished piece of advice (“Deliver the product!”) and her greatest inspiration (one of her first bosses, Zenons Zudans at the Franklin Institute Research Laboratories, who, in Blair’s words, helped to turn her into a confident professional) to the end seems almost unjust. However, as Blair continues to weave and work with new stories that impact organisations the world over, there will be many more opportunities to revisit these details and continue learning from her work in the future.
Madelyn Blair can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.