Storytelling and Problem Solving: Part 1
of the most popular techniques identified with Knowledge Management is
storytelling. Led by Steve Denning, Dave Snowden, Katalina Groh, Larry
Prusak, John Seely Brown, and Seth Weaver Kahan, storytelling has
become a vibrant movement within KM with a life of its own. Two new
books, due out in June 2004, by Denning, and Brown, Denning, Groh, and
Prusak, promise to fuel the fire of storytelling and spread it well
beyond the disciplinary confines of KM into the general field of
Storytelling was introduced into Knowledge Management by Steve Denning
(See The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge Era
Organizations, Woburn, MA: KMCI Press/Butterworth-Heinemann, 2001) as
part of a Knowledge Sharing initiative at the World Bank. It was used
to present "Springboard" stories to communicate an action-igniting
vision of what Knowledge Sharing might mean to the World Bank. But its
purpose was not simply to share the idea that Knowledge Sharing might
be valuable to the Bank and its clients. It was also to induce
listeners to "co-create" their own vision of Knowledge Sharing and its
benefits to the bank. The stories used are called springboard stories
because they "catalyze" a process in listeners which (a) leads to a new
level of understanding about Knowledge Sharing and its significance and
(b) leads to action based on this understanding.
stories are not the only ones that are useful in organizations. In
Squirrel, Inc. one of the two new books I referenced earlier, Denning
covers stories whose primary function is (1) communicating about who we
are, (2) getting people to work together, (3) expressing and
transmitting core values, (4) springboarding, (5) taming the
organizational grapevine, (6) sharing knowledge, and (7) leading people
into the future. Many of these functions of stories transcend knowledge
processing, showing that storytelling has applications broader than
knowledge processing and KM.
this blog and the very next one, I'll focus in on the relationship
between storytelling and problem solving (or knowledge production) in
organizations. In future blogs, I'll write about storytelling and
knowledge integration, and storytelling and knowledge management.
Popper, Storytelling, and Problem Solving
his later writings, Karl Popper had a good bit to say about stories,
storytelling, and problem solving. He viewed stories in an evolutionary
framework and in the context of the appearance of language in animals
and humans. In animals, primitive languages have two functions:
expressive (of inner physiological states) and communicative
(signaling). But with the development of human language, an
informative/descriptive/explanatory function of language co-evolved,
along with human culture and cultural products.
to this point Popper's account is based on a theory of his teacher,
Karl Bühler. To this theory of the functions of human language, Popper
added (p. 84-91) the critical/argumentative function, which, he believed, was the
key to creating objective knowledge. Other functions of human language
such as the persuasive, advisory, hortatory, and others also exist. But
the first four are the most essential ones and stand in a hierarchical
relationship to one another, such that the higher functions cannot
occur without the lower ones. Thus, argumentative expression
presupposes, description, communication, and emotional/physiological
expression. Descriptive/informative/explanatory expression presupposes
communication, and emotional/physiological expression, and so on.
evolution of descriptive human language, according to Popper (1994, p.
89), was accompanied by a number of important biological effects,
- "A fuller awareness of time and . .
. a more flexible conscious anticipation of future events";
- "The formulation of questions" and "the beginning of objectivization of problems";
- "The development of imagination" . . . used in myth-making and storytelling";
- "The development of inventiveness"; and
- The "entrenchment" of newly invented tools, behavior, and social institutions in culture.
tremendously with the invention of storytelling. Its role in the rise
of the higher civilizations cannot be exaggerated.
connected storytelling with the critical/argumentative function as well
as with the descriptive function. He said (p. 90):
is found, as far as we know, in all human communities, however low they
may be in their cultural development. Sticks are not found in all human
communities, but storytelling is. So I would say that the invention of
tools, and the richness of the different tools that men can invent, is
connected with storytelling. . ."
all conversation and even most stories are largely argumentative and
critical. Myths are invented as explanatory theories and are, like all
explanations, partly argumentative, although often in a primitive way.
It is also obvious that the descriptive function cannot fully develop
without the critical function: only with the argumentative and critical
function can negation and similar things develop, and these, of course,
greatly enrich the descriptive and informative function."
But elsewhere, he contrasted stories and criticism and pointed out that human language (p. 452):
. . gives rise to the need to criticize because of
storytelling. With the invention of language there also comes the
invention of excuses, of false excuses, and of false explanations
produced in order to cover up something not quite right that one has
done, and so on; and with this arises the need to distinguish between
truth and falsity. Thus, with storytelling there arises the need to
distinguish between truth and falsity, and this, I think, is how
criticism actually arose originally in the development of language
. . ."
. . What characterizes a descriptive statement is that it
can be true or false, and therefore also that it can be used for
different purposes: for the purpose of telling the truth - that is to
say, for conveying information - or for the purpose of lying; for
example, for making certain excuses acceptable, or for covering up
failure, and so on. I think storytelling emerges from these descriptive
reports, from the telling of lies, or from both. Both descriptive
reports and lies fulfill a kind of explanatory function. .
light of Popper's work, the connection between language, storytelling,
and criticism, on the one hand and problem solving on the other is made
by realizing that storytelling, along with other
descriptive/explanatory language formulations, addresses real,
visualized, or envisioned problems. Stories are one method of
expressing knowledge claims whose intent is to describe/inform/or
explain a pattern of related events or occurrences. Stories are
conjectural in nature. They assume theoretical propositions about cause
and effect and about change, even generalizations, in many cases, but
they are about specific events or occurrences, and in that way they are
different from general theories.
like other conjectural formulations, fit into Popper's problem solving
schema, and the Knowledge Life Cycle version of it I have described for
organizations. Stories, represent tentative solutions to epistemic
problems because they explain why things have happened or because they
offer predictions about what will happen, or because they prescribe, or
because they close an epistemic gap by informing us about a solution.
It may help us to get a grip on the meaning and implications of our
knowledge claims when we wrap them in stories. And stories may suggest
entirely new knowledge claims to us by stimulating us to combine ideas
in fresh ways.
stories, like general theories, and other knowledge claim networks, may
be false, or if they prescribe values, may be illegitimate. They may
fail to explain, describe or inform about reality, or they may fail to
prescribe the right actions. To use them to solve problems, we need,
once we've formed them, to subject them to criticism and testing
through Knowledge Claim Evaluation. Only if our stories survive
competition against other stories during knowledge claim evaluation can
we conclude that they provide solutions and objective knowledge. Even
then, however, we cannot say for certain that they are true. They along
with other knowledge claims remain conjectural and subject to further
critical evaluation as the need arises.
Storytelling and other areas of Problem Solving
Knowledge Claim Formulation is not the only area of problem solving where storytelling can help. Let's review the others.
Storytelling and Problem Recognition
Story-telling can help us to recognize and clearly formulate knowledge gaps (i.e. problems) that are relevant for improving organizational business processes.
If you're the storyteller, the act of formulating a good story can be a
great aid in increasing your own understanding of the problem. If
you're the listener, a good story can help you to see a knowledge gap
clearly and to better appreciate its connection to the practical
decisions that cannot be made without closing that gap.
Storytelling and Information Acquisition
story-telling useful for acquiring information from outside our
organizations? Storytelling within an organization has no role here.
But listening to, and acquiring, stories from outside one's
organization can be among one's most relevant sources of information
for competitive intelligence.
Storytelling and Knowledge Claim Evaluation
story-telling useful for Knowledge Claim Evaluation? Here, I think the
answer is mixed. Alternative stories express competing knowledge
claims, and are indispensable for comparing competing knowledge claims
about particular events or occurrences. By-and-large, however, except
for their role as the targets of comparison, stories are not very
useful for performing logical analysis, or for analytical criticism, or
for comprehensive and close comparisons of competing knowledge claims.
For these activities we need critical frameworks, models, or
perspectives, rather than stories.
claim evaluation is the area of knowledge processing activity in which
stories are least helpful. Unfortunately this is the area of knowledge
processing which most distinguishes it from information processing (See
Chapter 3 of Key Issues in The New Knowledge Management).
Storytelling and Individual and Group Learning
story-telling useful for individual and group learning? Recalling what
I've said earlier about problem solving, and keeping in mind that
individual and group learning refers to individual and group-level
knowledge life cycles nested within organizational systems, I think
that story-telling is very useful for much of it. But, as with problem
solving at the organizational level, it is less useful for Knowledge
Claim Evaluation and Information Acquisition in individual and group
Being Sensible About Storytelling and Problem Solving
what is the bottom line on storytelling and problem solving? From the
Knowledge Life Cycle perspective, story-telling is very helpful in Problem Recognition
and Formulation and in Knowledge Claim Formulation. But it has
shortcomings in Knowledge Claim Evaluation, and Individual and Group
Learning. So, I think that we should use stories and learn to tell them
skillfully. But I also think that we should all take out a membership
in story-tellers anonymous, and pledge that we will not get drunk on
the appeal and success of our stories in persuading others to our
beliefs. Instead, recognizing that our stories are conjectural in
nature, we should pledge to cultivate a critical attitude toward them,
keeping in mind that if our stories survive our best criticisms they
are more likely to provide a better basis for decisions.
my next blog I'll explore this attitude toward storytelling and problem
solving further, by posting a recent AOK Group exchange I had with Steve
Denning on "Narrative and Knowledge".