Dave Snowden

Aspects of narrative work: I

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As I indicated yesterday I have to write one, possibly two entries for Sage's forthcoming Encyclopedia of Action Research and I have to complete them this weekend.  The problem (and the opportunity) with Encyclopedia entries is being objective while keeping your entry to a thousand words.  Wikipedia editing is a good training for this but that word count is hard.   I've always seen an Encyclopedia as a means of starting different journeys so getting the structure of any entry is key.   Now some time ago I attempted to provide a perspective on this field, partly in reaction to what I considered an overly simplistic distinction between “Big S” and “Little S” story telling.  In that post I aimed to expand understanding of narrative to cover other uses.  

The other concern I had at the time, but did not raise, was the issue of integrity.  In part the Big/Little distinction was created to defend consultants from charges by academics that they were simply playing around with things they didn't fully understand, or from professionals in the field to the effect that said consultants were rank amateurs.  Now I have sympathy with both sides of this debate, but I don't think the solution is a dichotomy.  I also held back a little as I didn't want to be seen to be too critical.  Mind you I got that badly wrong a few months later when I discovered when what I thought was a good humoured game turned out to have serious intent.

So over the last few weeks I have been playing around with various representations and I think (but there are some hours to go) I am going with some variation of the triad which heads this post.   In this I am looking to balance three aspects of organisational use of story.  The three points are:

  • Communication is story telling and its what film makers, writers and traditional story tellers do well.  In the modern day trans-media specialists have taken this to a new level.  Most of the professionals in this area have elaborate apprentice schemes with education so you can see their concern about amateurs giving them a bad name.  Its rather like marketing consultants re branding themselves as ethnographers with no real training or study just because its fashionable.
  • Understanding represents the research community who have developed a whole body of techniques to interpret anecdotal and narrative material. I abbreviated this to RE (which has a sort of double meaning) but it might be better as R&I namely research and insight.   This can range from full engagement and participation in the community to tagging key words and concepts in transcribed material.  Its a distinctive aspect of qualitative research with a wealth of literature and methods available.  Again you can see the concern about amateurs.
  • Knowledge Management also uses stories, although recognition of the role is more recent.  It can has been argued that the emergence of narrative in human evolution is driven by the need to share knowledge.  It gives us something other than personal experience or imitation of parents as a means of learning.  Story also provides identity and knowledge filtering capability.  When knowledge management got going it focused on codification but several of us focused on narrative – John Seely Brown, Steve Denning and myself in particular although others took it up later.

Now my overall argument (although this is not for the encyclopaedia) is that we need to balance all three and the secret of that is the method of capture and interpretation.  Get that right and we can manage the sweet spot in the centre of the triad.  Skew it to a corner or a side and we have something useful but incomplete.   More on that later.