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Thursday, April 22, 2004

Evening in Arcady (Thomas Coles, 1843)

Storytelling and Knowledge Integration

In my last two blogs, I analyzed the role of storytelling in problem solving, describing both its important positive role and its limitations. In our KLC framework, knowledge processing includes problem recognition, problem solving (or knowledge production), and once knowledge is produced, Knowledge Integration, the process that presents this new knowledge to individuals and groups comprising the organization, becomes the focus of knowledge processing. It distributes the organization's objective knowledge to individuals and groups and in doing so initiates the individual and group level KLCs that represent their reaction to Knowledge Integration and that produces changes in the Distributed Organizational Knowledge Base (DOKB). See my earlier post, "Organizational Problem Solving", for a more detailed description of Knowledge Integration, and the references there for much more detail.

Knowledge Integration has four sub-processes: Knowledge and Information Broadcasting (KIB), Searching and Retrieving, Teaching, and Sharing. All four may be performed either electronically or interpersonally. In KIB, an individual or group, holding previously produced organizational knowledge initiates transmittal of such knowledge to those who are unaware of it. In searching and retrieving individuals and groups actively gather previously produced organizational knowledge. In teaching, individuals recognized as intellectual authorities both transmit organizational knowledge to others and are the focus of inquiries about their knowledge from others. In sharing, individuals and groups use peer-to-peer communications to express organizational knowledge. With the foregoing as background let's examine where storytelling fits.

  • Knowledge and Information Broadcasting

People can present the codified knowledge and information of the organization to others by sending or telling them stories in the absence of specific requests for them (i.e. "broadcasting"). Storytelling supporters in KM believe that stories are more effective than other tools of expression for doing this. Perhaps they are. But the criterion for effectiveness being used seems to be a story's utility in providing a stimulus that the person receiving it can use to comprehend the lesson the storyteller is trying to communicate. Sometimes those using stories talk about the receivers co-creating the story in their own terms. This is certainly the way Steve Denning describes the "springboard" story. However, it's clear that storytelling proponents don't mean the co-creation of the story in such a way that the receiver comes to reject the lesson being presented or implied in it.

So "co-creation" seems to refer to a process where a receiver comes to understand a story in his/her own terms, but not in such a way that this co-creation leads the receiver to believe that the story is false. This raises the question of whether stories are more useful than other techniques of communication in conveying understanding of the knowledge claims they are asserting, or whether they are simply more useful at manipulating agreement with those knowledge claims. Of course, if it is the second, that would call into question whether stories are really more effective than other tools in helping organizations to adapt.

I think these considerations may be most relevant where interpersonal (and not electronic) methods of storytelling are used since by all accounts, interpersonal delivery of stories is the most effective way of using them to elicit rapid understanding of the concepts underlying a story. In other words, are stories least effective in helping organizations to adapt, where they are most successful in bringing about quick agreement with the vision presented in a story? I think that someone's answer to this question will, in part, depend on how much faith one has in rapid, but uncritical comprehension of knowledge claims, which storytelling sometimes seems to elicit, as a foundation for more effective action.

  • Searching and Retrieving

Stories play no material role in electronic searching and retrieving, but in interpersonal searching for information the person looking for it from someone else can often help her/his informant by clarifying what's needed through a story. We may not run into too many situations where we need to tell a story to clarify what information we're looking for, but it is precisely in those situations where we can't name or easily summarize the nature of that information that we need a story. We need a story that will state our problem, and in doing so, narrow down, for our informant, the possible answers, or the places (libraries, books, periodicals, documents, the internet, people, etc.) where answers might be found.

  • Teaching

Of course, stories are a favorite technique in teaching. Every time we describe a situation to illustrate a point, we tell a story. Sometimes we tell it well, sometimes not so well. But teaching is frequently about telling stories to illustrate general points by describing cases, or to give histories, or to explain why an event occurred in the way that it did, or for many other reasons. We rely on stories constantly in teaching most subjects. We may rely on them less in formal subjects such as logic, mathematics and statistics, but even there we need stories to convey complex ideas and to help understanding. When we teach general theories in biology, physics, psychology, and other sciences we often use stories to illustrate theories. When we teach history or political science or anthropology we often use stories to explain particular events or circumstances without relying on the pattern inherent in a story to create understanding. What would teaching be without stories? Nothing but a set of abstractions that only very few among us could understand.

  • Sharing

Much of the excitement surrounding storytelling in KM has centered around its use in knowledge sharing, by which people normally mean any attempt by one person to communicate data, information, or knowledge to another, rather than the specific formulation of it as peer-to-peer sharing of explicit knowledge. I've already discussed broadcasting, and teaching, which are types of knowledge sharing in the broader sense of the term, and have indicated the importance of stories to performing them well. Peer-to-peer knowledge sharing is similar to the other two sub-processes in its dependence on stories. Much of the time, we really can't do it well without writing, communicating, or telling stories.

In spite of the importance, approaching necessity, of stories in knowledge integration, it is important to emphasize that stories, alone, are not sufficient for good knowledge integration. Where models and other formal knowledge need to be integrated, stories may be used to illustrate, but to show how models work, it is necessary to explain the structure and operation of the model itself. Further, when we have general normative theories to teach, stories again have an illustrative role. One of the most important areas where stories alone won't work for knowledge integration is the area of the outcome of knowledge claim evaluation of stories themselves. Unless we consider the record of analysis of a story for veracity a story itself, it seems clear that stories don't have much of a role in this kind of knowledge integration.

Finally, one of the problems involved in evaluating the role of stories in knowledge integration and other areas of knowledge processing as well, is the generality of the idea of stories. On Steve Denning's web site, there is a section devoted to "Storytelling in the News". At the end of the section Steve comments on the question whether a narrow or broad definition of "story" should be used in looking at storytelling in the news. He argues for a broader view on grounds that it is difficult to make a viable distinction between stories and "straight news", and also because the "soft, squishy, emotional stuff" is everywhere in the news stories.

On the other hand, if we look at every narrative that describes an event, occurrence, or happening, as a story, then it is a trivial conclusion that stories are very important in knowledge processing and knowledge integration. That is, basically our modes of expression come down to generalizing models or explanations and stories. So, of course, both will have important roles to play in the various areas of knowledge processing. Things become much more interesting however, when we either (a) use a much more narrow notion of stories, or (b) divide the general category of stories into types. As I indicated in a previous blog post on this subject, Steve Denning and Larry Prusak have offered typologies of stories. This suggests more illuminating analyses for the future that will analyze which types of stories are most useful for each of the sub-processes of knowledge processing.

10:31:03 AM    comment []

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