posted 1 Jun 1999 in Volume 2 Issue 9
Narrative Technology and the New
Usually, when story telling takes place on a massive scale within daily life, thousands of people fill stadiums or halls to hear preachers, speakers and the modern story tellers of the nineties. But IBM don't need the physical stadium to communicate stories across a corporate-wide globally dispersed population. John Thomas explains the various narrative approaches they are developing.
Storytelling is an ancient art. Stories are memorable and motivating (Schank, 1990). They are a natural way for human beings to create and share knowledge (Turner, 1996). Given this naturalness, why do we need to analyse it and design technology to support it? In fact, might the very act of trying to bring technology to bear on stories and storytelling destroy what is best about them? How can we ensure that modern technology enhances and enriches rather than diminishes our lives (cf. Thomas, 1996)?
Dave Snowden, an IBM colleague of mine also works with corporate stories. He uses an apt analogy to explain why it may now be necessary to take storytelling to the next level. When the Modern Olympics began in 1896, a natural athlete who trained hard had a good shot at winning a Gold Medal. At the end of this century, that is no longer true. Only a good athlete who trains hard and trains scientifically, with expert advice in nutrition, biomechanics, sports medicine, and other fields has a shot at a Gold Medal. In the past, great leaders in business have instinctively told stories to help motivate people and to create an organizational reality. Workers have also shared knowledge by telling stories in small, face to face groups. But today, we live in a world at once faster paced, more competitive and more global. Science and technology might now be used to make stories and storytelling more effective, more appropriate, more scaleable to large organizations. In this article, we will begin to outline the beginnings of the new narrative technology.
We have been developing several categorisation schemes for stories, some based on function, some based on structural properties, and some based on communicative context. One of these latter schemes looks at stories in four contexts:
1. Stories and scenarios can be used as a way for a company to obtain information about its customers, their needs, and the contexts of use for their products.
2. Stories can be a useful way to share information within a company. Major subcategories here are stories shared among peers and stories heard, created, and told by leadership.
3. Stories and scenarios can be used to help explain how and why products and services might be used.
4. Finally, stories about your products, services, and practices will be shared by customers and the general public. These stories may have a powerful influence on sales, employee morale, hiring, partnering, and even legislation and regulation.
Scenarios of use
Lieber (1997) points out that having customers tell stories about products may get at deeper needs than focus groups or questionnaires. Ethnographic inquiry may involve working with potential product users to storyboard problems and potential solutions (Beyer and Holtzblatt, 1998; Bodker, 1999). Building a story together with potential customers helps focus technologists on solving the real problems and doing it in a way that minimizes introducing new ones (Gruen and Ehrlich, 1999). For instance, in the abstract it would seem very reasonable to replace the paper strips that air traffic controllers use in France to keep track of individual flights with a completely computerized system that has the same information. Part of the real story, however, includes the fact that these strips as physical artifacts are moved about to further signify additional information about the stage of processing. In addition, the power often goes out and the strips are still readable by the emergency lighting! (Mackay, Fayard, Frobert, and Medini, 1998).
According to McKee (1997), good stories take us to the limit of human experience. While McKee's book focuses on how to write good fiction, scenarios that explore customer needs and possible solutions should also delimit the edges of experience within the domain of interest. It is not enough that one explores the "typical" case or cases. In order to understand the limits of the proposed solution and possibly to avoid later difficulties, it is important to examine unusual, stressful conditions (Bodker, 1999; Thomas and Kellogg, 1989). The earlier in the entire "design-develop-deploy" cycle that potential problems are uncovered, of course, the cheaper the fix (Thomas and Carroll, 1978). Skimping on scenarios of use, or focusing only on the common or modal cases, may save pennies now but cost many pounds later.
Once information is obtained about customers and their needs, it can be communicated in many ways inside an organization. In some cases, stories remain a memorable and motivating mechanism for sharing such information, especially when there are elements of the specific context which may interact with the outcomes expressed in the story. Sharing information about experiences via storytelling is natural in small face to face groups of trusted colleagues. However, attempting to scale this practice to a large organization faces several significant challenges.
In face to face storytelling, whatever is said is typically deniable. In addition, the storyteller receives real-time feedback in terms of facial expressions, body language, and comments, and can therefore adjust the message accordingly. Groups share a common context. The storyteller may also use extralinguistic cues such as a wink or an eye-roll to signal to the listeners that something is to be taken ironically.
For example, in a small group, everyone knows that Jane Doe is hardworking, creative, and productive. In telling a story about Jane, Joe might glance at Jane and say, "So, Jane, in her typical lazy way...." and by his intonation and facial expression indicate that he is obviously aware, as they all are, that this is being said ironically, as a kind of compliment to Jane. Indeed, the use of this "in-joke" helps build and retain group identity. Imagine now that this story, absent of the face-to-face group context, becomes a written document on a corporate-wide data base. Taken out of context by someone not "in the know", this story might be taken as indictment of Jane's work habits, or an indication of Joe's insensitivity.
Yet the desire of many corporations to share information more widely is quite reasonable (Reilly, Matarazzo, and Ives, 1998/9). For example, there are hundreds of people who may know useful information about particular products, services, customers or individuals. How can such information be usefully shared? How can we scale the natural face to face process of storytelling to a persistent, organization-wide level (i.e. creating a "storybase" related to specific customers, or products etc.) and deal effectively with the significant issues in trust and accountability? In order to deal with these issues, we are exploring four approaches:
First, we are developing a statement of ethics with respect to storytelling and incorporating ethical checkpoints into our story cycle processes. Second, we are developing techniques to partially anonymize stories. Third, we are developing a fictional slate of characters and groups so that lessons learned about systemic problems can be constructed without reference to actual individuals. Fourth, we are developing a system to collect specific sets of related anecdotes and narratives and then construct fictional stories based on these.
Only the constructed fictional stories would be persistent. Furthermore, in this process, we are extracting and storing important contextual and value information. We are applying the concepts of "shearing layers" first introduced by Brand (1994) in the architectural domain, to guide the persistence and modification of story layers. Managing all this detail and complexity "by hand" would be impossible. On the other hand, fully automating the process is not yet possible. Therefore, a suite of computer tools are being developed to serve as "active communication channels" (Thomas, 1980).
Leaders also attempt to influence corporate culture and corporate change through stories. This can be effective. However, such a leader must remember that stories, like any communication, will not simply be "taken in" by readers or listeners. Rather, people will interpret stories in the light of other experiences, their model of the teller and the teller's goals, and by their own goal structures (Thomas, 1978). For this reason, communicative acts, such as stories must be carefully designed with real users and situations in mind.
In a large U.S. telecommunications company for instance, there was a push by top management to change the culture to become less conformist and more imaginative. Executives told stories aimed at showing that creativity and empowerment were "in." Every employee was forced to go to a three day seminar to learn new values such as creativity and empowerment. At such workshops, the facilitators gave the so-called "nine dots problem." In this problem, you are supposed to draw straight lines that go through a three by three matrix of nine dots. You must use no more than four straight lines and the lines must be drawn without taking your pencil off the page; i.e. they must be connected. The solution requires that the lines go outside the imaginary box formed by the nine dots. In one of our sessions, someone gave a rotated version of the solution in the facilitator's handbook and the facilitators called this a "wrong" answer! Needless to say, this story spread fast.In fact, it was much more believable as an indication of how the company really was than the executive stories aimed at promulgating the notion that now creativity was to be rewarded. Perhaps worse, the executive themselves lost credibility. Every story communicates not only about events but also about the communicator (Thomas, 1983).
Stories as instructional guides for users
In product development, it is obvious to the developers what the overall purpose of the product is. Documentation, training, and help systems often focus on what the functions are and how to invoke them. However, to the end user it is often not at all clear why the functions should be invoked or when. The user has no overall "story" about how to fit this new product or service into their ongoing concerns and activities (Carroll and Thomas, 1982). Scenarios of use then, can be used, not only to "sell" the customer, but can also be an important source of conceptual understanding. The best sales people, of course do this now as an individual skill. Is there something to be gained from doing this more systematically? We believe that there is;by using the same narrative technology described above, we may organize story elements into shearing layers and correlate them with contexts of use. In this way, specific scenarios of use can be quickly crafted to suit industries, groups of customers, individual customer companies or departments and even individual end users.
Customers will share stories about your products or services. As McKee (1997) points out, stories take us to the edges of human experience. Consider the following narrative. "I was driving home one night and found myself nearly out of fuel. I stopped at the XYZ station and filled my tank. I paid with a credit card and drove on home." No-one would tell such a story -- at least, not twice. It is uninteresting, boring, common. Imagine however if the machine had ruined the credit card, or the fuel had caused the car to explode. In other words, if you merely meet your customers' expectations, they will tend not to tell stories. If however, you fail to meet their expectations, you can be sure that stories will be told, many times. You could also encourage storytelling by greatly exceeding your customers' expectations. Nordstrom's, for instance, is one company that has been quite successful at doing just this.
In this essay, I have explored some of the ways that stories can be used to help reach specific goals. Perhaps the most powerful use of stories however, is not to solve problems but to find and formulate them. As Underwood (1994) states: "Learning stories are designed to engender questions, not to answer them - to raise issues, not to resolve them. They are an invitation to contemplation." (p. 43). In this vein, anyone concerned with designing or leading successful projects would do well to read Underwood's 10,000 year old Native American tale, "Who Speaks for Wolf?" It is apt today.
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John C Thomas is a Manager of Knowledge Socialisation within IBM ,USA. He can be contacted at:firstname.lastname@example.org