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Sunday, April 18, 2004

Lascaux Horse

Storytelling and Problem Solving: Part 1

One 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 Organizational Management.

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.

Springboard 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.

In 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

In 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.

Up 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.

The evolution of descriptive human language, according to Popper (1994, p. 89), was accompanied by a number of important biological effects, including:

  • "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.
Inventiveness (pp.89-90):

"increased tremendously with the invention of storytelling. Its role in the rise of the higher civilizations cannot be exaggerated.
Storytelling 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. . ."

Popper connected storytelling with the critical/argumentative function as well as with the descriptive function. He said (p. 90):

"Almost 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 . . ."

And later:

". . . 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. . . ."

In 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.

Stories, 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.

But 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

Is 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

Is 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.

Knowledge 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

Is 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 learning.

Being Sensible About Storytelling and Problem Solving

So 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.

In 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".

5:49:48 PM    comment []

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