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Storytelling & narrative

By Dave Snowden  ·  June 3, 2013  ·  Musings

I'm finishing off my entry for the Sage Encyclopaedia of Action Research on organisational storytelling.  It has been interesting to summarise a broad field into a low word count without references (although there is a reading list).  One aspect which will amuse me next year is that I can cite it for the entry on the same subject in Wikipedia as it is a reliable source.  I also need to buy Bob Dick a beer or two for his patience with my tardy behaviour in getting this written.

I didn't use the picture that heads this post in the entry, but it was one of the ways I made sense of the field when I was doing the research and I am now using it in the new Cognitive Edge four day programme - next up Melbourne next week.  I did use the basic concept of most practice falling between the three corners or the triad.   The three main extremes are:

  • Communication, the traditional meaning of story-telling and way back when we were getting started on this stuff in the Institution for Knowledge Management in IBM a lot of people were interested in the wider story-telling movement.  There was a lot of exchange then with groups such as the Jonesborough Story Telling Festival and other traditional groups.   These deal with full stories, often designed (well mostly designed) for performance, often told and retold to many audiences.   A lot of teaching stories focus here along with the bulk of story telling consultants, who vary from the interesting and informed to the charlatan purveyors of snake oil!  
  • Learning & knowing is the area where I was one of the pioneers, along with others.  We came at the field from a despair at the codification practices which dominated early knowledge management and started to see stories, or anecdotes as I called them (a phrase taken up since by several people) as a primary method of knowledge capture and distribution.  Others went a stage further and brought in journalists to record full blown stories, but that then starts to overlap with the communication aspect.  Interestingly one of the problems there was that while people would come to listen to an experienced or retired person tell stories, they rarely used the library tapes.  The granularity was wrong.
  • Research has high value with a long history of narrative work.  Some of the best names here are Czarniawska, Gabriel and Boje who have very different approaches.   There is also a whole body of longitudinal research and other material in play here.  The big issues such as observer independence, engagement and bias remain unresolved with different takes on how to manage that.   This group can be very critical of the story telling consultants and its been interesting to see some of the evasions of this criticism.  The normal approach is to say that they are doing something very different which worries me a bit as there is a body of theory and practice they could learn from.

Of course nothing is fully covered by any of those hence the triad.  A lot of people these days combine communication with knowledge capture.   A lot of the methods I originally developed with Sharon and Cynthia in the IKM have been taken up both by people on the periphery of the IBM story team as well as others.   In research several argue for research as engagement, shifting to a balance between communication and understanding.  In the IT sector the use of use-cases as well as the general use of story in SCRUM/AGILE combine understanding with knowledge. 

Now the problem with story-telling per se is that it has a double meaning in English, the dominant one is in effect to deceive or to tell porky pies.  That remains a concern for me with those who focus on leadership story telling - not all by any means but some.  

More recently we have digital story telling, the work of Roger Shank and others as well as our own work on SenseMaker® which attempts to balance all three elements.  The interesting things about this group is the different between story-telling and micro-narratives.  In the case of the former a story is created and constructed with purpose.  It is therefore a reflection or post-hoc rationalisation or explanation of an event in the light of the needs of the present.   In contrast with that a query on a micro-narrative database recalls a range of micro-narratives (as they were originally recorded) and allows the recipient to blend those anecdotes together with their own situation to come up with a contextually appropriate form of action.  It ameliorates the danger of being seen to being told a story.

We also have the broader use of narrative to describe a coherent sense-making activity but that is for another day.