Many people have written about the role of stories in knowledge management including Steve Denning and David Snowden. Here are some updated thoughts first offered in the earlier days of KM. A previous version of this post appeared in an article in December 1998 issue of Knowledge Management which I co-authored with Michael Reilly and Trisha Matarazzo. This six part serial updates this work with stuff that has occurred since it first appeared and supplies links. After discussing the power of stories in the next segment, it concludes with four major uses of stories for organizations. This serial follows the positive reaction to the history of KM serial.
We began with a quote from Jean Luc Godard:
“Sometime reality is too complex. Stories give it form.”
Of course, great historical writing tries to strive for both accuracy and a meaningful framework to make sense of the past and provide lessons for today. But then great fiction is not restricted by the accuracy of the details of the past. It changes to fit the accuracy of the spirit or essence of the period to convey the writer’s own messages or the period can change to become the author’s own world, as in science fiction.
As you start to write fiction this becomes very apparent. My oldest daughter, Katie Ives, writes novels and short stories. Like many writers she draws on the material of her life to populate the details of her stories. She has said that she is sometimes reluctant to share her stories with family members or others she knows. She says they will sometimes personalize a character that was built on some aspect of the individual but is not intended to be a historically accurate representation of that person or even a representation of their character.
I have started to write some short stories and the need to change reality to better fit my message became immediately clear to me. This is a useful exercise to try. Write a piece that reflects some real event in the past. Now think of the messages from that event you want to convey and re-write it to better convey those messages.
In a similar way, stories can be used within organizational settings to convey a greater meaning, whether it is how to close a sale or something more profound. If they are not restricted to the literal events of the past, it gives them more potential to convey the essence of the message.
Of course, this can be abused if the distinction between fact and fiction is not made clear. This is especially true if the changes are a distortion of the truth or the possible truth. Once, I watched a master salesperson use stories to describe a situation where his product was used. A colleague, who knew both him and the product better than me, said quietly to me in the back of the room as we listened, “The scary part is that half of what he says is true.” I later asked the sales person about this and he responded, without hesitation, “I speak of about what should (or might) happen, not what actually happen.” That is fine as long as you make this clear to your audience and projected “day in the life” demos can be some of the most powerful sales tools.
We began our article of story telling with a little story of our own, that we also used to conclude the article. Stay tuned for the ending in six days.
“Sam reflected on his sales plan as he prepared to meet the next customer. He would portray a day in the work life with his new product to make the benefits concrete and understandable. But even before that he decided to set up the story by presenting his customer’s situation in a story format – the situation, including his customer’s goals or quest – the complication, including the obstacles to meeting these goals – and the resolution or how his product can help the customer overcome the obstacles and achieve the goals. Sam felt confident as the time arrived and he reminded himself to share this event with his new apprentice.”