Our story in the last post could have taken place 3,000 years ago, 300 years ago or even last year. It provides an example of how stories can be powerful in educating and sharing knowledge. Historically, we know that stories have played a key role in transferring knowledge. The epic poems, ancient parables and the teachings of many major religions are all evidence of the ageless nature of stories.
Stories are part of the human spirit; they touch our emotional core and provide a natural means for organizing our key values (see Dan McAdam’s “The Stories We Live by: Personal Myths and the Making of Self”). Recent research into great leaders has suggested that a leader who truly enables change is one who creates a story; a vision that significantly affects the thoughts, behaviors and feelings of a large number of people who then become followers (see Gardner & Laskin – “Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership”). For example, Gandhi conveyed a vision that in non-violent struggle both sides could emerge strengthened. This applies to business as well as politics and religion.
Before text was invented, stories were the main form of knowledge recording and sharing, as the conditions for the preservation of ideas were mnemonic (see Eric Havelock – “Origins of Western Literacy”). Stories provided the organizing framework for both the recorders and the receivers of knowledge. With the advent of text and storage devices such as clay tablets and papyrus, others forms of documentation became possible.
But stories did not lose their power to move people and the printing press made them scalable. For example, many historians have argued that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ was more instrumental in convincing the people of the northern United States of the evils of slavery than the more abstract appeals to morality by contemporary politicians. Stowe was referred to as the old lady who started the Civil War.
Within business however, although stories have remained important in informal knowledge transfer, they have not been formally recognized for their value and have not been managed to achieve maximum benefit. Stories are about sharing knowledge, not simply about entertainment. It is their ability to share culture, values, vision and ideas that make them so critical. They can be one of the most powerful learning tools available, yet business has been slow to take advantage of this potential. Storytelling can assist with almost every aspect of the business environment, from strategic planning to assisting in enterprise transformation.
There are a few exceptions in addition to well known writers like Denning. For example, David DeLong in Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce talks about NASA's use of storytelling. NASA implemented a storytelling initiative where those close to retirement and others recently retired, provide stories about their careers designed to pass on their passion for space exploration to younger generations
While stories can be simple, they also require a broad bandwidth to convey their context and richness. Business information systems have traditionally focused on data and information. Now, with the increases in bandwidth, information technology and knowledge management interest, corporate stories can become more recognized as a major source of organizational learning able to be managed through technology. Stories can be made scalable in a digital world and a knowledge-based economy. Look at the video blogs, for example, as one new way to capture stories.
Stories can be recognized as a source of value to increase the success and wealth of the organization. These stories need to be managed, evaluated, documented and distributed to the right people in the most effective ways. The next four segments will cover four key uses of stories for business.