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Dave Snowden

Narrative: picking up the scallop shell

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Narrative has been an ever-present aspect my work over many decades now. I was lucky in that I initially entered the field in the pursuit of knowledge. Firstly when young through reading, listening and speaking; but then in the early days of IBM when I was trying to find ways to map knowledge in organisations. I didn’t enter the field by seeking to communicate, but instead to discover. From that a lot of water has flowed under the bridge. Back in 2016 I wrote a post suggesting that narrative management might be better titled narrative manipulation. Earlier in a book chapter Gary and I contrasted art-ludditism with techno-fetishm which managed to irritate at least one of its targets. Mind you my attempt to legitimise different types of story wasn’t received well by some. My work with Boisot, originally developed on paper table cloths in Stiges remains important as does the work on archetypes. Overall one constant theme has been the ability of narrative to convey meaning through essential ambiguity and their role in creating meaning and also truth. Then if you want a general positioning on narrative, based on by entry for the Sage Handbook on Action Research, I updated by thinking in a post last September. Overall a search on the word on the blog will keep you occupied for hours, as I discovered to my cost this morning.

The Sage handbook entry is important as it tried to show that the field of narrative is far more than story telling. In modern times the whole concept of story telling has taken in a new and twisted meaning; something I addressed when I asked if we had ever not been a post-fact based society. The fact that we weave our lives between the abstract and the concrete is both a strength and a weakness. A quick pre-opera brainstorm with my anthropologist daughter over a drink threw out a whole range of questions and topics around the idea of narrative:

  • Tropes or memes?
  • Truth and validation
  • Territorialisation
  • Mobilisation 
  • Story telling as lotus eating
  • Gaining a voice
  • Performance and permanence
  • Writing as sterilisation of the oral tradition
  • Assemblages
  • Inter-generational meaning
  • Narratives of conflict and of peace

The conversation could have gone on all night but we had to move onto opera, a multi-faceted form of story telling in its own right.

So why am I telling you this? Well, our first retreat of the year will be on the role of narrative in the organisation and society. While the ability of narrative to shape society has always been there – the Tudors had the best propagandist of all time in Shakespeare – the rapid and near instantaneous connection of micro-narratives, rumours and the like in the modern world at times seems to be the equivalent of a million butterflies flapping their wings in unison, or possibly a trillion butterfly bots …

We live in turbulent times, hence by opening picture, and understanding the role of narrative will be key – more on that tomorrow.

The reference to the scallop shell is the first of several references I will make to the idea of pilgrimage – it is the iconic image of the Camino de Santiago and I have one gifted to me by a current pilgrim here in the study at home.

Header picture by NASA
Banner picture by Jessica Knowlden
Both on Unsplash

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