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Monday, April 19, 2004

L'allegro (Thomas Coles, 1845)

Storytelling and Problem Solving: Part 2

In my last blog I analyzed the role of storytelling in problem solving. I concluded by saying that KM's justifiable enthusiasm for stories and storytelling should be tempered, in the area of problem solving, by an equivalent enthusiasm for critically assessing competing stories, because our stories are conjectural in nature and could easily be false. I proposed that 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 this blog I will further emphasize that position by posting an exchange between Steve Denning and myself that is recorded in messages 1497 and 1501 of the AOK list serve group.

I'll begin with Steve's statement in point 5 of his reply to a number of posters.

Steve: 5. "JOE FIRESTONE'S POSTINGS ON NARRATIVE AND KNOWLEDGE: I won't give here the detailed response that Joe's lengthy and helpful postings deserve. I'll just make two points.

First, Joe concludes that story is essentially good for pretty much everything except the weighty task of Knowledge Claim Evaluations. In this I would agree with him: analysis is a better tool than narrative for evaluating the truth of some supposed piece of knowledge. Narrative has many strengths, but sorting out the wheat from the chaff isn't one of them."

Joe: "To have your agreement on this greatly increases my confidence in my reasoning about it.

You also said:"

Steve: "Second, Joe's underlying assumption seems to be that knowledge" is the gold standard and that nothing else is worth a damn. I find this assumption more problematic. In the world of, say, the physical sciences, where what was true yesterday is almost certainly going to be true tomorrow, this is a sound approach. But in the world of human affairs, tomorrow may not look at all like today, and in organizations, the principal issue is what to do tomorrow, about which there can be no certain knowledge. It's in dealing with tomorrow that an approach rooted in yesterday's verified knowledge, and constrained by yesterday's axioms, and dominated by analytical thinking that flows from that knowledge and those axioms, has been shown to be so lacking."

Joe: "My assumption is not that knowledge is the only thing that "is worth a damn". It is that "knowledge" is biologically unavoidable, and that it is developed through a process of problem recognition, developing tentative solutions, and then eliminating the errors in them. The only question is how well we will do the job of performing these three activities.

I think that story-telling is very useful for developing tentative (and alternative) solutions. It is a very old and honored human technique for doing that. But once the stories are told, and even if they are wonderful stories, we still have the task of trying to eliminate the errors in them; of trying to make the stories as strong as they can be so that the knowledge they carry does not fail us. The physical sciences and the world of human affairs are not different when it comes to the need for critical evaluation of the stories we tell in both spheres. If anything, criticism is more necessary in the area of knowledge claims about human affairs, so that we don't act on what are obviously false knowledge claims.

Moreover, regarding your critical comments about analytical thinking and yesterday's verified knowledge, I, don't believe that knowledge claims can be "verified" in the sense I believe you have in mind. I do believe, however, that knowledge claims can be criticized and that we can distinguish among them according to how well they meet our tests and criticisms. I also think that even though analytical thinking in the Social Sciences has been far less successful than in the Natural Sciences, the lack of such thinking and uncritical reliance on intuition and authority has had even worse results. And that we see those results around us in the corporate world and in Government every day. So while, I believe in intuition, in story-telling, in unfettered imagination, and in artistry, I also believe in analysis, in logic, in rationality, and in criticism. All of these are our faculties and they are all equally human."

Steve: "Narrative is often a better way of exploring possible futures and their implications, and certainly needs to be part of the toolkit. Verified knowledge is obviously part of the picture but it isn¹t the whole ballgame when it comes to innovation in human affairs."

Joe: "As indicated just above, I don't think error elimination is the whole ball game in any field. Inquiry is a mix of the creative and the evaluative, and so is innovation. I think one problem with KM as a field these days is that it is out of balance. There is tremendous emphasis on novel techniques and experiences for generating knowledge claims, but very little concern and emphasis on how claims, once generated, will be tested and evaluated. This is a great mistake, and in calling for its correction I am not denigrating story-telling, collaborative spaces, mind mapping, communities of practice, or any of the techniques we currently value because they free up our thinking. What I am calling for is the recognition that the results of using these and other techniques stops short of Knowledge Claim Evaluation, and that our task in solving problems is not done until we've completed that activity as well."

Steve: "6. DETECTING THE FALSE NARRATIVE: I agree with John Barrett that there is no reason why narrative should be more likely to be false than abstractions, and so I disagree with others who advise against using narrative because it might be false. If anything the presumption should be the opposite: narratives are typically specific to individual situations and can usually be verified in various ways. Abstractions are typically more general and are more difficult to verify. We may believe that all swans are white because no one we know has ever seen anything but white swans, but then one day we may find that there's another upside-down part of the world where swans are black. In human affairs, generalizations are even more difficult to prove than narratives and even more likely to be false."

Joe: "I don't think abstractions are true or false. Abstractions are concepts. We use them in statements. The statements that include them are true or false. And stories are not free of abstractions, even if they are about specific events. When stories are told we must be aware of the generalizations that are implicit in the stories and we must be aware of the abstract concepts that these stories contain. You said there was no reason to believe that narratives are more likely to be false than abstractions. I would not put it that way. I think the comparison is between narratives and more formal knowledge claim networks that express theories containing abstractions. And I think that while it is true that narratives are not more likely to be false than theories, in theory, it is also true that in practice we are likely to treat theories differently than we do narratives. When we use theories we are likely to compare them against each other, to view them as competing, and to criticize them in an effort to see which is the stronger. But when we have narratives, we are likely to use them to try to sell and to provide support for a point of view we favor, and we are not likely to use them to test and to evaluate and to determine whether our point of view can survive our evaluations.

You also said:"

Steve: "In practical terms, the issue boils down to whether we are going to be intelligent about our storytelling or not. Refusing to learn what works and what doesn't work in this field isn't all that smart - in fact, it's the antithesis of knowledge management. Refusing to do it because of the risk of misuse is a bit like saying we won't give people hammers or allow them to fly in planes because hammers and planes can be used as weapons rather than for their intended, constructive use."

Joe: "I quite agree. The remedy is not to prohibit story-telling or to refuse to learn about it. It is to learn more about it and to subject narratives to Knowledge Claim Evaluation.

You also said:"

Steve: "We are a storytelling species."

Joe: "With which I also entirely agree, but I must add that we are a criticizing species as well. And as I pointed out in an earlier post, the evolution of language was accompanied by the evolution of story-telling, which, in its turn, was accompanied by the evolution of criticism, so that we could eliminate the errors in our stories.



5:57:37 PM    comment []

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