Another purpose for sharing stories is to enhance learning and accelerate growth within companies. Every good teacher knows the value of putting key messages in a context that learners can understand. John Dewey was an early proponent of this approach. Businesses need to apply the technique of framing a message in an understandable and concrete context for learners. In fact, a U.S. study found that most employees thought they gained most of their work-related knowledge from informal conversations around the water cooler or over meals, not from procedure manuals or formal training.
By using stories in formal training, whether through self-study materials or instructor-led classes, abstract material can be transformed into real-life application. A familiar context gives meaning to the story and allows conclusions to be drawn for real-life application. With proper questions, learners can imagine how the lessons learned from the stories can be applied on a day-to day-basis.
For example, imagine trying to convince life insurance sales trainees that it is important to understand all of their client’s needs before recommending the correct product. A few stories showing the negative consequences of not doing this and the positive outcomes of taking this extra step will have a much greater effect than abstract statements or discussions of company policy.
Simulation-based learning experiences go a step further by actually placing the learner in the storyline itself. For example, if the key learning was based on time management, the business simulation would put you in a pretend situation where you had too much to do in too little time. In these situations, learning occurs during the activity and is applied in the context of the story. The learner can then apply their new understanding to real situations at hand. This learning is further reinforced when the class or individual reflects on the process and the choices they made during the experience.
A number of years ago I developed a CBT program to support a major telecom transition to also selling computers. The course began with a scenario that showed the consequences of not probing for client needs in areas that computers support and the economic benefit of taking this direction. It was designed to motivate participants to take the course to learn how to reap these benefits. This approach worked so well, we began to put little stories in front of all CBT programs, even those dealing with training on such topics as how to use mainframe storage software to back up programs. In this case we used a little humor to show the consequences of not using this software and the benefits of using it.
New technologies and advancements in learning theory research place us in a position to go beyond relaying stories in the traditional manner of instructor-led training. Now we can create active stories by placing learners in a virtual learning zone. We know how to record stories both in sound and picture; we have learned how to broadcast knowledge around the world in just seconds. The internet has provided a platform to access people’s stories across time and space. See, for example, the BUBL Link catalog.
Steven Spielberg’s extensive digital video recording of Holocaust survivors - and cataloging these recordings as a means to capture the real experience - is a good example of the significant new opportunities brought by recent technologies. He used the box office profits from Schindler’s List to finance this effort which is a model for the recording of oral histories and related artifacts. A similar approach could be applied to significant lessons learned at key business events.
Virtual Reality is still in its infancy, but it will pave the way to an even better story telling experience; soon we will be able to enliven the tale. We will be able to record audio, visual and textual information and make it come alive for future generations to enjoy and learn from. In this case, the learner can really play a part as the main character in the story. They can create the events that happen and can draw upon multiple resources to make decisions. Computer game technology provides a means for this.
Injecting real-life experience into technology-based training does not have to wait for virtual reality to mature. In today’s age of computer-based training, basic teaching material that would normally be used during self-study or instructor-led classes can be extended with digital audio and video resources. Learners can even be guided by an on-screen coach who asks questions, tells them stories that relay key points or prompts them to head in the right direction. In a number of cases we have found that this approach significantly increases learning efficiency, and translates into measurable business results.
For example, a knowledge system created for property-casualty insurance claims agents could capture stories from experienced claims agents in the form of digital video clips. These stories could be categorized and quickly accessed according to the issue they are currently facing. It is like having the expert supervisor always on hand to relay the right story at the point of need. The story contains much more than a series of basic procedural steps. It can contain the rationale, the strategy and the cultural values implicit within the actions taken by the story teller. In addition, as the ancient story tellers realized, it is also much more likely to be remembered than the usual uninspired file of procedural steps for processing claims.