posted 24 Jan 2011 in Volume 14 Issue 4
Everyone has a story to tell
Tony Quinlan explores the collection of narrative in objectives-driven KM projects
There is no better time to be championing new ideas and methods than now. Times are tough, budgets are tight, but the need for new ideas is more pressing than ever – the perfect (if uncomfortable) conditions for innovation.
A crisis is too good an opportunity to waste. It shows that the limits of current thinking and business practice have been reached, that it is time for the next evolution in how we work. One of the great fallacies at these points is to do the same, but harder and more focussed: ‘we’ll get it right this time’. If the environment has shifted, doing more of what you have been doing already will make matters worse.
Our recent projects have been new techniques for the organisations involved – pilots on a relatively small scale, designed to give useful results but with room to fail safely. One of the flaws now being exposed is the belief that practice or knowledge can be divorced from the context in which they arose. So, each project has revolved around the collection of narrative, although the desired results have been focused business objectives.
The ‘improve our revenue’ project
This is a fictionalised version, amalgamating a number of those recent experiences. It gives clients anonymity without losing the interesting learning points – the mistakes, problems and near misses.
The examples it’s derived from came from employee engagement, cultural analysis, sales improvement and education projects. While they all had different particular end-goals, they all built on KM techniques and had knowledge implications. They also happened to result in stored knowledge repositories – but not as the main focus.
The projects involved cumulatively took in 13 countries, ten languages and three alphabets and gathered more than 7,000 micro-narratives.
The project began with a basic business request to a colleague: “We need to improve our results, increase our revenue. And we have a group of people here that are crucial to that goal. Your job is to help them all to do a better job.”
In the old world, this was a simple task. Assemble the messages, design the communications, drive the managers and inspire the people themselves. But, in this new world, it is not that simple.
Luckily, the colleague knew that the old world had faded and so the first job was to understand the group’s current situation and beliefs. Direct questions and focus groups were inappropriate – either the questions would be too blunt and obvious or the focus groups would become a battleground for opinions; the final report only illustrating the most dominant.
There was, of course, an added difficulty to the mixture – language. The audience were spread across multiple languages and different alphabets. Yet the project sponsors only spoke English – and hence the final analysis had to be in English (and there wasn’t the budget to translate everything).
This was also a sponsor with a hard, pragmatic perspective – they wanted hard business results. Their perception was that concepts like knowledge management were irrelevant. They were interested in action, not knowledge. Broaching the subject to try and enlighten them would have produced an adverse reaction. A project that delivered useful results would capture their interest – and gain their trust for further initiatives.
The key was then the conversations that took place – an interweaving of ideas and practicalities. No rigid model to implement, but a process of looping around suggestions, requests and clarification. Rigid models were dropped, in favour of a few fixed principles and lots of flexibility. It’s all about letting the sponsors guide and feel they are leading, while having enough respect for yourself to stick to your guns on what really matters.
The best route to understanding the audience was through capturing their experiences – but seen through their eyes, not open to the (mis)interpretation of experts. Cognitive Edge’s SenseMaker™ software provided a way to do that – collect micro-narratives from people, but have them signify their own (and their peers’ stories). The original material could be written or audio and kept in the natural language of the speaker, and the signifier set would be the only element that was translated. SenseMaker™ also meant that we could do substantial analysis on the results, while keeping a solid repository of material.
Two parallel strands of work kicked in at that point – setting up the collection process and designing the signifier set and capture system.
The signifier set
Signifier design was critical – it was how people would add meaning to their stories and how project sponsors would analyse the data to understand the audience. Given the importance of getting the signifier set right and comprehensive, academic models were used to design the initial attempt. Brain power was brought to bear upon the problem, producing a set of abstract concepts that encompassed much human experience.
It was so abstract, in fact, that the clients found it too difficult to use. A useful lesson – some people demand intellectual rigour and stretch to work with it, others need it to be solid but more suited to their way of seeing the world. Both approaches are fine – but it helps to know which type of client is sitting behind the desk.
The second signifier set started with a room full of people, who dealt with the audience in question all the time. A day of prompting material, another day of condensing it down and we had our second proposed set of signifiers.
Working again with sponsors, the signifiers were tweaked and honed, stripped back and fleshed out again.Finally, we had a set that the client understood at an intuitive level, the audience would find quick and simple in practice and we knew were robust and comprehensive.
The collection process
The process revolved around social environments. These are where stories and experience are shared openly and frequently. Creating an informal environment, with some formal collection within it, was the best solution.
Technology was attractive – using iPod Touches to collect and signify material was quick and easy but required capital. Online entry was straightforward but relied on people’s typing speed and their willingness to write material down. In the end, the simplest method was audio recordings for the material and paper and pens for the signifiers.
Social sessions were therefore set up in target countries. Arranged via local management, most were held over a two-week period. In retrospect, holding an event on the Friday morning before a long weekend was a mistake. Low attendance and even lower attention spans resulted.
With signifiers designed and country events arranged, translation was arranged for the signifier set and the prompting material. Pictures as prompts don’t need translation, but can run afoul of cultural issues. Casual questions looking for examples of ‘times when you felt...’ produce torrents of material.
Translations were then sent to local management to check and tweak for local nuances and subtleties.
Collecting the material
The two-week tour (complete with tour t-shirts) was a triumph of flexibility. Within 48 hours of the first gathering, word had spread back to the project sponsor about how engaged people felt. Within another 48 hours, it was apparent that some translations had not been checked, for example: “On this sheet, when you ask how a person would feel on hearing this story, did you mean ‘excited’ rather than ‘aroused’?”
(In future, a deliberate mistake will be added to translations to be checked – if not picked up, the translation needs to be checked by someone else.)
Different countries handled the arrangements in different ways – southern Europe needed cigarette breaks, others wanted to serve food during the process. Adapting the process to fit these differences worked wonders. The important element was a social environment, from which material would naturally emerge. An over-rigid process would have obstructed that.
The material was wonderfully varied – short examples and descriptions of situations, lengthy expositions of key moments in organisational history, snapshots and jokes of mistakes made. All of it relevant, all of it freely given.
The first step with all the material was to share it with the immediate local management. For an organisation in the middle of huge change, most had not been in post long and had had little contact with the target audience – this material gave them context and understanding, both to explain decisions made prior to their joining and to inform their own future decisions.
Having entered all the signifiers into SenseMaker™, analysis could begin. Analysts were mostly consultants who had been involved in the signifier design and therefore understood them intuitively. After a false start, in which each analyst produced radically different conclusions as a result of their own interests in the material, we settled on a straightforward approach.
Rather than demonstrate how sophisticated the analysis (and by implication, the consulutants) were, an initial meeting fed back the most basic results from the analysis – the dominant beliefs, the interesting correlations between attitudes and situations. With good quantitative data, this produced new awareness, questions and hypotheses – fuel for the next level of analysis.
Some results were surprising. For example, what drove the audience and what they saw as obstacles to more revenue turned out to be less rational and more attitudinal than the sponsor’s earlier assumptions. Areas for improvement were easily identified and crossed boundaries with other departments. There were major implications for training and development, country leaders, internal communications and brand marketing teams.
Yet the narratives behind the results made a huge difference. Instead of large, intensive programmes, the implications were easily implementable. Where new content was needed, examples were already available in the project – situations for role-play training, stories of failure to share and learn from, successful examples for the communications team.
By the end of the project, there was a greater engagement with the audience just by dint of the process. Local managers were better informed and induction of future managers will be made easier and more relevant to the local context. The marketing group was able to re-direct its efforts to meet new market challenges.
Crucially, the hard-edged, pragmatic project sponsor had the results that he wanted – and he now trusts and values the input of the colleague who had suggested the new approach. That trust extends far beyond the introduction of new techniques, but in general across a range of wider business issues. And this creates more opportunities for what is, after all, knowledge management with a real focus on the business and without the need to be recognised as KM.
Tony Quinlan is chief storyteller at Narrate. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Guidelines for projects
There are always exceptions, particularly when dealing with highly intelligent specialists, but these are useful guides for many successful pilots
Drop the jargon and models
If you know it all and befuddle other people, their best way to show power is to criticise and undermine (I know one person who can talk jargon and high-level concepts with clients and keep their interest. But only one).
Find reasons for conversations with clients to understand what interests them
An in-depth report may be a triumph of brain-power and depth of understanding, but if the end-client doesn’t get it, its main value is to be presented at conferences
Approach it sideways – address elements around the problem, not the problem itself directly.
Make it fun
It’s not about sucking knowledge out of people’s brains. It should be a social (and sociable) process first and foremost.
Don’t interpret others’ stories or experiences, let them signify for themselves
Expert analysis will only reinforce experts’ previously-held . Self-signifying the material adds meaning, it doesn’t just explain the material.
Make it safe to talk about the mistakes
They’re the most interesting bits – and where there is the greatest potential for learning.
Run pilot projects
Encourage enthusiasts, while allowing for necessary failure.