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.


‘its between me and my god…’ inside Iran

Reza (not a name I imagine used extensively today in view of it being that of the deposed Shah) is my driver as we pass a massive new mosque under construction in Teheran. We’d got onto the subject of religion as I’d seen few Iranians observe prayers while at work and asked Reza whether that was usual.  He said ‘it’s between me and my god’ adding, that the number of people who regularly attend a mosque is falling. Pressed for a number he says less than a quarter of the population!  A figure that shocked me and was contrary to the (erroneous) image I had. All is not as it seems (or is reported) in Iran.

Teheran – a walking city?

The dress code for men is Western (no ties though) and generally women are very smartly turned out.River by the roadCovered Bike  People walk or ride interestingly constructed bikes and the feel is European with tree lined boulevards and pavements.

Traffic is a nightmare and short journies can take hours. It is not uncommon for a 10 mile commute to take 90 minutes. Teheran is a sprawling city with mountains as its backdrop and smog in winter when temperatures can plumment with snow on the hills.

food, drink and cards

Persian cooking is among the best in the world.  We were entertained at a villa in the centre of Teheran and treated to the most astonishing meal surrounded by our host’s family. IMG_1175Another unexpected highlight was being offered Brasilian Mate by our client in his office. The slightly bitter tasting liquid is much prized so this was an honoursabzi_khordan.

Another treat was to discover how much of the Iranian diet comprises locally sourced food. The impact of sanctions means little is imported and the local goat’s cheese was among the best i’d tasted. Surprinsingly fish is not a Teheran speciality, the absence of a river means fish is farmed though it bore none of the taste associated with UK farmed salmon.

Vegetables are fresh and salads in fashion though fast food is now prevalent and cakes a prerequisite with coffee.

Flowers adorn cards which are given for eid and brithdays.

‘a country united by soccer’

In June Iran, coached by the Portuguese Carlos Queiroz, qualified for the 2014 World Cup finals in Brasil by beating the powerhouse of Asian football South Korea. It was and is a source of great joy and celebration uniting the whole country.  And yet unlike Sudan and Saudi Arabia there is no football for the fair sex as women are prohibted from attending matches which I was to discover presents a challenge to be overcome!

Iranian women are nothing if not resourceful and I was reminded of the story of Jeanne Baret reputed to be the first woman to circumnavigate the globe in 1740 dressed as a man! It appears Iranian women adopt a similar tactic to gain access to matches even though the language used by the male attendees is rudimentary.

Although the victory against South Korea was not without controversy (Queiroz was accused of inciting the crowd and making inappropriate gestures) a susbequent traiining camp to Lisboa was cancelled during to lack of funds as reported in Teheran Times.

The Iranian Football Federation (IFF) announced that the training camp which was supposed to be held in Portugal has been cancelled due to lack of funds.

“We tried to arrange the training camp but it’s impossible due to lack of money,” Mehr News Agency quoted head of IFF Ali Kaffashian as saying on Sunday.

Iran was scheduled to face Gabon in its training camp in Lisbon on September 12 as well as a friendly against Sporting Lisbon. Iran football coach Carlos Queiroz told FIFA last week his priority is a good preparation ahead of the 2014 World Cup.

“We have to make a worthy, creditable contribution, one that will honor and make all the supporters in Iran proud. How are we going to do that? With a wide-ranging, intensive preparation, as without that we won’t be able to compete against the big teams,” he said.

I found it astonishing that coach Queiroz’ planned preparation schedule is being disrupted and an illustration of the economic impact of sanctions.

news and social media

As if underscoring the not is all as it seems observation I switch on the TV in the hotel and find BBC World which is a major shock since BBC’s website is blocked along with Facebook and Twitter. Yet Google search is available even if some of its apps are not and during the elections internet line speeds slowed to a crawl.

‘Britain helps rebels use chemicals…’

External news feeds are carefully scrutinised and it is difficult for a theocratically inspired regime news monitor not to be influenced by comments such as ‘nuke the bastards…’ made by a US citizen in the comments section of a online news service in response to an article on the Iranian stance on Syria.

An alternative view1It goes some  (though by no means all the) way to explaining news stories such as this which appeared in Iranian newspapers on our final day in Teheran. Iran’s people are ready for a change and the recent elections seem to have given them hope that a period of isolationism is coming to an end. Not many are aware that Iran’s current President studied at Glasgow University and that so many of its citizen’s prize a good academic career that they are willing to forego luxury items to ensure their family are well educated. Everyone seems to be a Dr. and woe betides the unsuspecting visitor who fails to address someone with a Phd by the correct title.

As we were about to depart, the UK Parliament gave a thumbs down to military intervention in Syria which as all readers will be aware is close both geographically as well as politically. The Iranian news reported this occurance positively!

A recent flurry of messages between London and Tehran and a reopening of diplomatic relations albeit through the Omani embassy in the UK, suggests a change of approach even though on departure I was grilled by the immigration official at Teheran airport about what a UK citizen had been doing there.

More importantly I sense we are at a watershed moment wherein the US is no longer seen as or indeed behaves like the ‘policeman of the world’.



Favourable first impressions of Iran despite ‘come back tomorrow with the fingerprint records…’

Our first contact with an official at the Iranian Consulate in Dubai in support of our application for a visa.

will we get in?

Nazim (aide de camp from the client’s Dubai office) has handed over our documents at 9am. A prominent Knowledge Management guru/practitioner and I (whose name I am omitting along with that of the client to protect confidentiality), have stopped there enroute to Tehran as there is no Iranian Embassy in the UK. We’ve been assured getting a visa would be straightforward and that the opening hours for visa applications of 8am to Noon would allow us enough time to get on the 18.45 Emirates flight from Dubai to Tehran.


My hand /fingerprint

So at 7.30 am, having arrived barely 5 hours previously, we were collected and taken to Dubai CID for fingerprinting. This is not normal for either of us. It has been necessitated by the US’ imposition of such a policy for inbound Iranian visitors and as often happens in politics provoked a like for like response.  It proves to be a slightly amusing affair despite the officer in charge holding my hand a little too long for my liking while I am shown where to place my palms on the machine that is to record every detail of my hands not just fingerprints.

no insurance, no entry!

And so to the Consulate.  The official rejection is made in a manner that leaves little room for negotiation. And a new twist, we are instructed to get travel insurance.  This is in itself ironic as UK travel insurance is invalid as the UK Foreign Office issues advice warning UK citizens not to travel to Iran. So here we are being told to buy it otherwise we don’t get a visa.  Help is at hand, a colleague of Nazim’s appears from nowhere on a motor bike, collects our documents, including fingerprint records, and speeds off in the blazing sun (its by now 10.30am and 35c).

InsuranceHe returns smiling some 35 minutes later clutching a couple of policies issued by the Iran Insurance Company! Amid much backslapping off he goes having handed over our documents.  Nazim whose demeanour has changed from misery to euphoria marches up to the counter with the policy.

Come back tomorrow with the fingerprint records!

There is a problem, not all our documents were handed back. Nazim is now crestfallen. Its 11.15am, the noon deadline for visa issuance is approaching, and our records are zooming around Dubai on a motorbike. The likelihood of us getting to Tehran that evening are diminishing rapidly along with his career prospects. We have a packed four day schedule that kicks off tomorrow morning and involves many senior figures, Nazim is on the hook to deliver us to the departure gate with valid visas!

However once more ‘Insurance Man’ delivers. He is back in 15 minutes with our fingerprint documents and with much fanfare 15 minutes before cut off time all documents are submitted.  A visa is duly issued by a woman official dressed in an abaya and hijab not our first contact who is haranguing everybody attempting to submit a visa application.

Declining the tempting offer of a tour of Dubai (I put a marker down for a visit to the Burj Khalifa to watch the sunrise) we return to our temporary home the Le Meridien Hotel opposite the Dubai Creek Golf Course – its way too hot and humid to play golf – and final preparations for the packed week ahead.

Nazim tells us that they went to the Consulate to check everything the previous week and were assured all our visas were a formality. Within a week the fingerprinting and insurance requirements were added. And the official who gave the initial advice was now on holiday.

first impressions

As we begin our descent the fuselage mounted camera on the Emirates Airlines Airbus A330 shows little of the terrain but does reveal an airport some distance from the centre of Tehran, a city which we are to learn is home to some 14 million people.

Women put on cloaks and headscarfs and from now on physical contact (including the shaking of hands) in public between the opposite sexes is the exception rather than the norm.  We land in the dark at 9.50pm at Imman Khomeini International Airport, Tehran.

The airport is a solid structure; quite Easten Bloc in many respects with substantial columns and signage that pays little attention to aesthetics.The immigration hall has a low ceiling which adds to the sense of foreboding I always feel when entering a new country.

As we line up to put our luggage through a scanning machine I note the lady in front has two suitcases larger than her.  My offer to help is politely declined with a knowing look. My earlier fears prove groundless and we are out 30 minutes from touchdown having been met by a driver who instantly makes us feel welcome greeting us with ‘Asr bekheir’ (good evening).

Samand_LX_31Our’ car the Samand is ubiquitous throughout Iran and in its ‘satellite’ countries. Iran Khodro Company (IKCO) is the largest vehicle manufacturing company, having an average share of 65 percent of domestic vehicle production with annual sales in excess of 700,000 vehicles that includes a number of French names produced under licence.

As we are to discover, sanctions has served to increase the manufacturing base placing much emphasis on the need for innovation and creativity.  I am to discover that as a result the Stage-Gate Process – New Product Development methodology developed by Professor Robert Cooper is very popular (more of that in a future post) and proves an interesting touch point as I worked with them both a decade ago when helping to introduce the process into many clients.

The journey is eventful and takes 45 minutes. Driving styles mix aggression and faith. Right of way is negotiated though traffic signals are observed. The overwhelming impression is of too many vehicles: entry to the centre on certain days is dependent on your number plate.

Pedestrian right of way does not seem to exist and crossing the road is not for the faint hearted. It requires determination, cunning and luck.  Woe betide the pedestrian who deviates or stops mid way as vehicles swerve around you.

IMG_1206On arrival we receive a warm greeting from the receptionist at the Raamtin Hotel a boutique establishment with 70’s decor. The  hotel is situated on the main North – South route but is surprisingly quiet. Water runs down each side of the street from the nearby mountains that form a backdrop to the metropolis.

River by the road


Room 309 which also has a 70’s feel about it overlooks the tree lined road which has many pedestrians despite its steep incline. It feels European in many ways and first impressions are favourable.