posted 20 Nov 2001 in Volume 5 Issue 4
The power of voice
Why storytelling is knowledge management
Storytelling is usually employed to achieve specific results within an organisation, but stories also give rise to unmanaged and often unforeseen effects. Victoria Ward and Kim Sbarcea examine the role of narrative as part of the fabric of both the official and unofficial stories that exist within an organisation, describing three very different types of character that are useful ciphers for the typical narratives of individuals in their relationships with the organisation.
Perceptions of the theory and practice of knowledge management
There is growing recognition that sharing knowledge is essentially a social activity, that knowledge has a social life and therefore operates beyond formal organisational structures. Organisations are developed only through continuous discourse, which leads to the exchange of experiences, perceptions and interpretations with the consequence that both a collective identity is formed and that shared understanding (‘sensemaking’) evolves.
Knowledge work gets done primarily through the bonds of formal and informal networks, and the roles of individual protagonists in them. These are rarely visible through formal maps of the organisation such as structure charts or directories. Peripheral (and often marginal) channels, people and structures dare to question hierarchies and transgress organisational or defensive barriers and boundaries. Being peripheral is what makes them effective.
It is generally acknowledged that most knowledge stays embodied – that is to say that experiences, insights, memories and judgements cannot be easily extracted from the bearer. Thus most knowledge is uncodifiable, only pertinent at a given moment in time and remains tacit (and should do so, unlike information, which can be canned into databases, papers, lists, guidelines). This presents organisations with a major challenge.
The normal official languages of the organisation (rules, manuals, processes, planning papers, reports, and so on) cannot serve to make the invisible visible. A growing body of theory and practice in knowledge management, starting with Nonaka and Takeuchi, reinforces the role of metaphor and careful choice of language as ways in which organisations need to see and describe these hidden histories and human dimensions. Words or phrases are shifted from their normal use to a context in which they evoke new meanings.
Knowledge management, organisational structure and storytelling
The modern organisation must become ‘knowing’ – of its people, their anecdotes, experiences and shared stories, fantasies and frustrations, as well as of its products, processes and systems. With this comes a shift in emphasis from information to knowledge (ie, from the collection of essentially inert data to the dynamic use and analysis of information, which leads to knowledge).
For organisations, the changing boundaries of nations, technologies and markets, as well as global/local tensions, increase the need for thoughtfulness in considering different cultures, identities, languages and abilities. Complex messages have to be transmitted quickly and believably, and an environment of trust needs to be created and maintained. “The short-term timeframe of modern institutions limits the ripening of informal trust.” There is an increasing dislocation between the values and ambition of organisations and of the individuals who travel through it or participate in temporary teams or projects. Reduced trust leads to an increased sense of risk, and so to a greater need for self-preservation.
We suggest that embryonic business models of the 21st century will become dependent on responding to, and weaving together, individual patterns into a different organisational fabric, of which story will be an essential vehicle and storytelling a necessary process.
Today’s organisations are witnessing a rise in stories as carriers of knowledge. Some employees share stories as a means of survival within the corporate structure; others use stories to create a space for themselves from which they can challenge, threaten, criticise and warn the dominant organisational power structure or bring to the surface accounts of management neglect or lapses.
The most effective stories are emotional journeys of fear mixed with curiosity, often containing elements of surprise and mystery that interrupt current thinking patterns, release frustration and encourage celebration. Weick stresses that stories are critical to sensemaking and underlines the importance of interruption (shock) as a way of drawing attention to important patterns. Stories can express traumas and bring out hostility, unlock experiences and engage both the teller and the listener much more closely with the values of an organisation than any official communication might do.
Stories can be commissioned by the official organisation in order to achieve specific effects, but this paper is more concerned with the unmanaged and umanageable qualities of storytelling. We examine narratives as a part of the fabric of official and unofficial stories that make up the organisation. We have chosen to use narrative rather than story to emphasise the changing voices and perspectives of the individual. Narrative also implies a performance, or two-way element, and the focus is not only on the story itself but the way it is being woven into a plot and communicated.
We have taken three different types of character or identity that we believe may be useful ciphers for typical (perhaps, hesitantly, we might say archetypal) narratives of individuals in their relationships with the modern organisation. These are:
- The hacker – warrior of the new techno-territory;
- The chatter – playful communicator or fictitious personality?
- The nomad – the traveller who helps the organisation to hear its narratives and construct stories to act on.
The first two of our three characters, the hacker and the chatter, are, strictly speaking, located outside the organisational boundaries, but demonstrate new types of collaboration, communication or subversion. The hacker stands for unsolicited comment or even intrusion, while the chatter is engaged in democratic dialogue, using the web as a medium for shared experiences and to imaginatively rehearsing different ‘voices’. Their narratives show how a sense of being freed from restrictive patterns can lead to openness and self-confidence. The third character, the nomad, often has only a temporary association with the organisation and might be described as an outsider on the inside, one whose self-sufficiency and mobility is increased by a digital environment.
The hacker and the chatter – technology, alienation and identity in a digital world
The contemporary organisation deploys technology on a widespread basis. As a delivery channel, technology quickly presents employees with information and knowledge, ostensibly of value to carrying out the task at hand. But people and society are being overwhelmed by an avalanche of information, and often find it hard to make sense of things. Furthermore, the immediacy of the information and the speed with which it is delivered – and thus processed by the receiver – leaves little time for reflection and verification of its truthfulness.
While organisations rely heavily on computers to maintain formal communication channels, digitise the corporate memory and explicitly tell the company story via policies and procedures, the PC at an employee’s desk stands as a gateway into a virtual world where unconscious fantasies and real-life fantasies can be reclaimed and played out. Virtual communication has the power to unleash the individual voice – employees can communicate feedback on issues, thoughts on strategy or company policy etc. Often this is done via private e-mail channels between disaffected colleagues, and these informal channels create a subculture where the individual voice is trying to reclaim its passion and authentic expression. “When the very notion that there is one true story is thrown into question, people begin to realise that any story is just a story. They are free to invent stories of their own that serve the purpose of any narrative: to provide a framework of meaning and direction so that a life may be lived intentionally.”
On the internet, an individual can reclaim voice in two ways: by becoming a hacker or by participating in live chat. Both forms of participation result in quite different narratives and voices. Myths around hoaxes, viruses and hackers are symptomatic of a society in transition; a society that is gaining a stronger sense of community through being technologically interconnected, yet one that has a new sense of alienation and vulnerability because the very same technology is beyond the everyday PC user’s control. While helping to build the internet, the hacker is simultaneously tearing down its architecture. Hackers can be compared with the ‘hippies’ of the 1960s – groups of people collected around the fantasy of lashing out at ‘the establishment’ and the greedy, ivory-towered corporations.
Whether a creative innovator or a destructive vandal, the hacker’s joy is in a “virtuoso, playful performance”, his sense of self in understanding and outwitting big organisations and in recognition by the shifting, web-based communities through which he builds and shares his knowledge. One of the challenges of the modern organisation is to find ways of acknowledging the hacker, his well-informed subversion and playfulness in using cyberspace as playground for new narratives and the disruption of old ones.
Telling stories and, more importantly, creating new narratives is an important part of any learning process. In telling or constructing a story, we learn about our own reactions, test out ideas and even enhance our self-esteem. To imaginatively rehearse different voices can provoke change. In the anonymity of cyberspace, however, this also raises issues of trust and authenticity. Chatters often use pseudonyms or screen names (known as ‘handles’) that mask their gender, or take on a persona the real chatter can only fantasise about.
The voice of the chatter does not exist within a multi-dimensional, real world. Constructed personalities, constructed voices and constructed identities come to stand for the real and the trusted. Experientially, a chatroom offers a community within which you can become a core participant and build relationships, or a transient dimension you pass through on your way to finding your voice.
The chatter exists inside the organisation as well as outside it, although usually less overtly, and may assume different identities that challenge the ethics and permissions of the organisation. How can the democratic principles of chatter, and the experiments of the chatter with identity, narrative and authentication of experience in cyberspace, be used positively to develop playful and joyful uses of technology to communicate inside the organisation?
The nomad – the traveller who helps an organisation hear its narratives and construct stories to act on
Finally, there is the traveller or nomad, a key protagonist in the modern organisational structure. As an outsider, he has the opportunity to bring new stories from his travels. On the other hand, the fact that his stay is temporary may mean he is unwilling to challenge the power structures of the organisation he is passing through, or that the organisation is disinclined to listen. Frequently, knowledge assets generated by travellers across organisational borders go to waste as they go unnoticed.
The nomad carries his narratives, crafted into a presentable story of who he is and what he does, with him from one organisation to another. But this raises several questions:
- What is the impact of this on truthfulness – does the need to perform threaten the truthfulness of the story you tell? Does the nomad invest energy in constructing and presenting a plausible and economically advantageous identity at the expense of a more honest version?
- Does the transience of the nomad’s stay increase the chances that he is a casual reinforcer of the status quo?
- Does the need to maintain and refresh the nomad’s own portfolio of experiences (individual capital) lead to a kind of plundering at the expense of the organisation’s social, human and intellectual capital?
Narrative and stories can serve as a visible bridge or channel to connect individuals, through networks, to organisations in a productive way, and can provide a way to integrate the nomad temporarily while honouring his perspective as an outsider. To illustrate our point, we will conclude with a case study of Sparknow work in which we deliberately used conscious “transgression [of the] red boundary [to] disturb something of the incomplete order of things”.
'The missing links’
‘The missing links’ is a story that was commissioned in the second phase of a piece of knowledge management strategy work with a government agency. During the investigative phase we found narratives that formed a story of great passion and commitment, coupled with resistance, individualism and frustration.
We had set out to play this story back to the client in negotiated conversations, engaging them in listening, reflection and action, but were drawn by the client into writing reports. This we did reluctantly, but seized a chance to use the first reports, taped and transcribed interviews when we were invited to work again with the knowledge management team to develop a presentation for the annual staff conference. The reports, interviews and other events were the raw materials for a more archetypal story to engage the several hundred staff members who would be attending the conference, and make possible the listening and action that the knowledge management team needed from across the agency.
The story is made up of four episodes, which are also narratives: that of the CEO; that of a pair engaged in trying to get attention for a new initiative; that of the head of knowledge management; and that of the individuals invited to join the team being formed as the knowledge management steering group. Each narrative has unique emotions, frustrations and achievements crystallised in such a way that the individuals are recognisable, the integrity of the narratives is preserved, but the whole story is communicated in such a way as to engage individual listening and collective action.
Both Carol, the storyteller who wrote and performed the story, and the client who commissioned it reported back a sense of joy and recognition among the participants of the conference, which led to a dramatically increased energy in committing to the knowledge management strategy in the workshops that followed.
In this instance we were able to work with the client as outsiders and introduce a travelling storyteller to draw together the threads. From the perspective of the consultant-as-nomad, it is unusual to be given so much freedom.
Storytelling is knowledge management
People think and act narratively. Weick points out that this is an important insight for organisational theorists, as most models of organisations are based on conflict through argument rather than knowledge shared through narration.
There is, we have proposed, a tension in the use of storytelling as an organisational tool:
- Storytelling can be deployed as a technique to harness the energy of resistance and transgression for the benefits of the organisation and joy of workers;
- But using voice/narrative to promote constructive anarchy and individual expression may challenge organisational structures and increase disturbance, unease and volatility at times of change, so increasing vulnerability of the leadership.
It is possible that this tension leads to irreconcilable differences in the needs and wants of individuals and the organisations they pass through or challenge. The challenge is twofold:
- To use storytelling to amplify the voice of unease, uncertainty and individual narrative;
- To do so in such a way that does not just become another sanitised explicit process that triggers another layer of implicit insurgence against the ruling or explicit structures.
The role of the story, and the perceptions, narratives and identities of the teller, particularly of the nomad who passes through organisations on his travels, the hacker who challenges organisations from a basis of deep knowledge and the chatter who plays with the fluid identities afforded by the internet, are critical in “disturbing the incomplete order of things” as Okri describes it, and will become a major force in the organisation of the 21st century.
1. Schein, E.H., Organizational Culture and Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 1992)
2. Sennett, R., The Corrosion of Character (W. Norton & Company, 2000)
3. Marris, P., The Politics of Uncertainty: Attachment in Private and Public Life (Routledge, 1996)
4. Weick, K.E., Sensemaking in Organisations (Sage, 1995)
5. Holtham, C., Ward, V. & Bohn, M. ‘Slow company – how procrastination and delay improves collaboration and the management of knowledge’ (Spacing and Timing Conference, Palermo, 2001)
6. Parry, A. & Doan, R. E., Story Re-Visions: Narrative Therapy in the Postmodern World (The Guilford Press, 1994)
7. Danet, B., Cyberplay: Communication Online (Berg, 2001)
8. Okri, B., The Joys of Storytelling II – A Way of Being Free (Phoenix, 1997)
This is an abridged version of a keynote paper for the Operational Research Conference in Bath (UK), 2001. The full paper is available from: email@example.com
© Spark Knowledge Ltd and Kim Sbarcea, 2001
Kim Sbarcea is chief knowledge officer at Ernst & Young Australia, and is part of the global committee shaping the KM strategy for Ernst & Young on a worldwide level. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Victoria Ward leads the research, development and publishing programme at Sparknow. She can e be contacted at: email@example.com
Maike Bohn is a publishing consultant and freelance journalist. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org