posted 20 Mar 2001 in Volume 4 Issue 6
Book ReviewStephen Denning’s The Springboard is reviewed by Jan Wyllie
Title: The Springboard
Author: Stephen Denning
The reason that The Springboard is such an important book is that the story it tells of business transformation at the World Bank deals with the missing link in the knowledge communication chain between knowledge transmitters (teachers) and knowledge receivers (learners).
Over the years in order to deal with the information/knowledge explosion and the ever growing complexity of data knowledge workers – consultants executives technologists and professionals – have tried to understand and communicate knowledge diagrammatically using conceptual models and charts. They might have been asking the right question – how do we communicate knowledge better? – but this is finally where The Springboard’s insights begin to bite into the mixed history of information and knowledge management. In his characteristically disarming way Stephen Denning simply recounts the story of his own personal experience:
I have seen the chart that is on the screen this morning many times before since I have read the presenter’s book which is one of the leading works in the field. Even so I find myself struggling to understand the chart...The chart is so complicated that the explanations go on for many minutes...The more pride and excitement that he shows in explaining his chart the more frustration and inadequacy I feel...Then the thought dawns on me: this is how my listeners must feel when they look at my charts with arrows and boxes and matrices...The chart – and the time spent explaining it – is the problem not the solution.
When I read this paragraph I thought ‘praise be it’s not just me who doesn’t understand these things’. Like much of what The Springboard communicates the thought is empowering.
One of the many virtues of The Springboard is that it practices what it preaches. Nearly everything is communicated as a story. It is the story of Stephen Denning’s personal odyssey as he recounts in slightly bemused wonderment how his discovery of storytelling forged a vital link in the knowledge communication chain at the World Bank fostering many new enduring cross-functional communities of practice. It is written as all stories should be in a way that makes the reader want to know what happened next.
Stories permit listeners to suspend belief – enter the realm of the make believe – for a period of time enabling them to assimilate and resonate with new stories instead of having first to judge the truth of what they are being told according to personal principles and beliefs about what is true or false or right or wrong.
The power of storytelling begins with the invitation to imagine. This invitation is so much more alluring than the prospect of being told what to believe. A well-told story is never an effort to understand. Rather it is a pleasure to follow and to discover its meaning. In Stephen Denning’s words: “When a springboard story does its job the listeners’ minds race ahead to imagine the further implications of elaborating the same idea in different contexts more intimately known to the listeners.”
Story-inspired change unlike traditional policy-making does not specify solutions to problems; rather it seeks to influence the people involved to apply the teaching as they see it in their own context. Every person and every situation is at least slightly different. In this way Springboard storytelling avoids the bane of most organisational transformation programmes the lack of ‘buy-in’ by the people most affected.
Using Springboard storytelling techniques the actual practice of which is described so clearly in the book the mission statement of the World Bank was changed to “incorporate knowledge sharing as a principal tenet” while “the provision of global knowledge” has become “one of the organisation’s most important functions” in less than two years. No mean accomplishment! Also more than a hundred new communities of practice were inspired by storytelling.
Stephen Denning is to be roundly applauded for re-opening the book on storytelling as being at the centre of human communication knowledge transfer and consequent decision-making. His Springboard story is a very specific story-form honed to be effective in the context of 21st century organisational change.
Jan Wyllie is founding director and managing editor of Trend Monitor. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org