Why stories matter for Knowledge Management: From Colombia to Iran via Portugal

A year or so back while I was in Colombia I was asked to do an interview for publication in Brasil.  It was about the role of storytelling as a effective technique for Knowledge Management and I thought I’d share (in English) some of the answers I gave then which I believe are still really relevant today. Here’s why:

Last week in Tehran as part of Stage 2 of an exciting KM project I have been invited to work on I was in a room with a dozen or so senior managers and engineers. We were trying to map a process to see where it could be enhanced / reengineered by embedding KM techniques.

There were flow diagrams, boxes and arrows.  The process (and the engineer describing it) came to life when he was invited to ‘tell us a story about what happened’. He opened up – it was as if I had given him permission to be himself and let go of ‘corporate or technology speak’. He then went onto describe what we styled ‘The Lube Oil Pump Incident’.

At the conclusion (and in the following day’s sessions) our sponsor and I encouraged everyone talking about a process to use narrative and to think of a title for their story.

It brought back two questions I was asked for the Brasilian article which I conducted while I was Managing Partner of Sparknow LLP:

Why stories? What is so special about them?

Hi Ana, thank you for this opportunity. Let me tell you why I think the use of narrative (storytelling) is a hugely powerful and insightful technique not merely for use in organizational KM.  Stories have the power to unhinge and unearth insights, experiences and emotions often hidden in the jargon and protocols of corporate world.

Sparknow’s tradition in using story in KM goes back to the late 90’s when the Founder Victoria Ward commissioned Carol Russell (a storyteller with origins in Jamaica and story roots in Ghana) to write and tell a story about the KM journey at one of the UK’s leading Banks.

Not long after ‘Corporania’ was completed and shared to much acclaim Sparknow was running a series of open sessions at the KM Europe conference held in Den Haag.  Among the attendees was a Geographer from Switzerland who had recently been asked to head up knowledge management at Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in Bern.  Manuel wanted to explore story-telling tools as a way to increase knowledge transfer between the Agency and its partners, different places, and the edges of the organization and the centre; that began a 5-year joint exploration that culminated in the production of Building bridges, using narrative approaches to knowledge management still viewed by many as one of the most useful works on organizational storytelling, and tangible evidence of how effective the use of story can be in KM.

I digress. To illustrate the point a bit more clearly.  Everyone can remember their best teacher or professor and I’m sure they were good because they shared anecdotes and stories that brought a topic to life. My law teacher was brilliant at describing in a humorous way cases that illustrated the law of tort. Moreover great leaders tend to be adept at using stories to engage and communicate, its one of their core skills.  So sharing lessons, bringing strategies to life, getting messages out across the organization, getting buy in to new ways of working and perhaps most importantly hearing what people actually think and care about are all improved by the use of a story in whatever form it is told. I’ll talk more about that later.

For me a big turning point was conducting an interview as part of an inquiry on behalf of the UK Tax & Revenue.  We were asked to find a way of augmenting quantative surveys to identify among other things how clients (taxpayers) perceived them and the help they gave.  While the interviews were but 20 minutes they were constructed in such a way as to encourage the interviews to tell the stories of their experiences in seeking help.

This particular interview which ended up being called ‘tippex and the kitchen table’ helped paint a graphic picture (through the words of the interviewee) of what it felt like to be filling in a tax form which you had to keep correcting through a lack of knowledge while running your own business and bringing up two children.

How is this relevant to KM?  By playing back the interview (with permission) to a wider audience it set the backdrop for potential changes in the way the department worked with clients.

Stories are prone to misinterpretation. Is there the danger of that causing problems in communication? If so, how can that be prevented?

Context is key. What I takeaway from a story might be different to you because of when and where I hear or read it and what my knowledge base is.  The same though applies to every form of communication. How many times do organizations seize up because of poor email practices and verbosity? This is a real issue across continents and languages and I can recall how the knowledge transfer in an R&D function stopped purely because of a different style of email communication.

The way to reduce the potential for misunderstanding is to give people the skills, the confidence and the equipment to identify, collect and share stories. And to ensure they are targeted at the right audiences in a manner that can be understood. Here is how we’d go about tackling the issue of whom to target and what to share with them. This applies equally to a KM programme as to a piece of engagement or communications.

1 |  Develop a strategic story that explains the direction in which their organization is heading, the prizes, the pitfalls and what’s expected of them. Bring it to life through words, images, etc that can be used to explain it to everyone with an interest in your organization. This provides a context for more specific communications and discussions.

2 |  ‘Support the strategic story with a series of smaller, individual ‘stories’ – accounts of people’s experiences in parts of the organization. These smaller stories can be used to bring the strategy to life, generate enthusiasm, spark ideas, resolve dilemmas, spread thinking and initiate conversations.

3 |  Create resources and assets to enable leaders and managers to put the story to work. Deliverables could include an engagement programme or roadmap, communication materials and experiences to bring the story to life, a story database, workshop designs and agendas, toolkits, training and ad hoc advice.

 

future of work: ‘cooperation not collaboration…’: takeaways from SocialNow Lisboa 2013

Ana Neves

Ana Neves

I’ve been in Lisboa at SocialNow 2013.

It’s a unique format event, the brainchild of Ana Neves, wherein social tool vendors present their products to a to the senior management (expert panel) of a fictitious company (CableInc) in the presence of an interested audience.

Expert Panel

Expert Panel

 

Here are my favourite tweets:

And a few tweets from me:

  • @stoweboyd idea of future archetypes compelling. World of tomorrow: Freelancers, Generalist, Followers and Cooperators

    BIObrfzCAAAdOxc.jpg_large

    Archetypes of Future Workers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It being Portugal where food and wine are essential for networking it had to be first class and it was – this is the Day Two lunch menu!

IMG_0828

Day Two lunch menu

If you’d like to see the #socialnow twitter streams I consolidated them into a Storify account which you can find here.

Importance of KM in Health: the story of Doctor Anwar and making use of what he and others know in Sudan

Meet Anwar, a Sudanese doctor. Just one of 5 fictional characters created by delegates at the Knowledge Management for Health in Sudan event I spoke at, helped plan and run.

Sudanese Doctor

Anwar

This exercise, Scenarios for the future, was set in 2020 and invited the 80 or so delegates drawn from across the whole of the health industry in Sudan to consider what a day in the life of each character might look like.  This was a new and warmly embraced concept in an environment where my information is my soul and much of the debate about the future takes place against a backdrop of uncertainty and increasing austerity where:

  • 2/3rds of all drugs are purchased ‘out of pocket’ not from health system
  • drugs are proportionately more expensive than in other domains
  • funds from external sources are available to assist with health informatics.

Having settled on a description of each character the delegates who were by this time in groups of 8-10 then set about imagining what their day might look like on January 1st 2020. A vivid imagination is required and was evident in the quality of the stories that were told by each group’s nominated storyteller.

The story of the Health Worker

Ismail’s story – Health Worker

I will in due course and with the organising committee’s permission publish the two ‘winning’ stories; yes we did do voting while the storytellers left the room.

One of Sudan’s leading pharmacists noted in a one:one conversation how important listening was and how difficult a technique this is for many to use when prescribing drugs.

By inviting each of the storytellers to play back the story to each of the other groups it was good to hear them say in the summing up that by the end they really felt they were the character.

 

The previous day I’d invited the delegates to change the way they looked and think about issues and barriers.  Using when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change exercise conducted in the best breakout rooms I’ve ever worked with, the delegates who are naturally loquacious soon grasped the concept of seeing the room through the lens of different professions.

Breakout room

Breakout room

This change of mindset was important: it allowed the subsequent round table (well round conference room) session that discussed:

‘What are the biggest issues we face in sharing knowledge and information about the health of our nation and how can we overcome them’

I’d invited each delegate to introduce themselves to three people they didn’t know. This worked well and encouraged a very frank discussion. The main issues highlighted were:

  • no systematic collection of information and limited understanding of its value
  • transparency of process (where do the figures go) and credibility of the data
  • lack of human resources to do the collection
  • limited statistical information to undertake scientific research on
  • ownership of data and the whole process – fragmentation
  • accountability to deliver
  • communication/awareness of what each organisation is doing – lots of ‘stuff’ is happening but there is a real risk of duplication of effort e.g. many of the disease control programmes are creating their own informatized information systems

Delegates recognised the tremendous strides being made by the Public Health Institute (one of the event’s sponsors and host of the official dinner) in developing professional public health administration programmes, the creation of a Data Dictionary and the publication of the first Annual Health Performance Review though many bemoaned the lack of official  support for research projects where Sudan has a prominent global position, Mycetoma Research Centre an example.

I came away from reflecting on a discussion I had around the event:

Its all about ‘informization’ – the ability to report from a health centre level with ‘point of sale’ data collected via PDA’s / mobiles as well as computers; about logistics management as a result to ensure supplies get to where they can do the most use.

This can be monitored by the minister, routine reports can be prepared showing which centre reported, which district has complete reporting, which state has complete and timely reporting and % of stock outs of basic drugs or vaccines etc.

And inspired by many of the presentations I’d seen on the morning of the second day from University of Khartoum’s research centre and of course the Public Health Institute who are reaching out to try and create greater awareness through public forum, newsletter and other events.

Perhaps the presentation that struck the biggest chord was from EpiLab
who have achieved impressive results in helping to reduce the incidence of TB and Asthma and whose research and community communication techniques are highly innovative. I loved the cartoons they developed on how to self treat and prevent the incidence of illnesses which were drawn up BY the local communities.  Their pictures and their words are published as guides for the nation and I know they will make them available so I can share them in future blogs.

It was an honour, a challenge but nevertheless great fun enhanced by the warmth of the welcome and a genuine sense of appreciation. Sudan’s people are among the most engaging and intelligent I’ve met. One anecdote from a conversation with a young professional in the communications business illustrates their dilemma:

‘…of the 95 people who graduated in my year a few years back 90 are now working overseas, the majority in highly paid good positions…’

In my address I acknowledged the support I’d had from many people in preparing for the event. They were: Ahmed Mohammed, Dr Alim Khan, Dr Anshu Banerjee, Ana Neves, Andrew Curry, Archana Shah, Chris Collison, David Gurteen, Dr Gada Kadoda, Dr Ehsanullah Tarin, Dr Madelyn Blair, Sofia Layton, Steven Uggowitzer, Victoria Ward