Storytelling and Knowledge Management
In earlier blogs on storytelling I talked about its role in problem
solving and Knowledge Integration. This blog will complete my remarks
on how storytelling relates to knowledge processing and KM. My analysis
will use KMCI's KM Framework discussed in Firestone and McElroy (2003),
and Firestone (2000). Figure 1 summarizes the framework's activity
categories. All 9 categories occur at the top level of the three-tier
model discussed in "Knowledge Management and Strategy
Figure 1 KMCI's KM Framework (adapted from Mintzberg, 1973)
Storytelling and KM-Level Management Processes
Among KM activities it is the KM-level business processes that actually
manage the knowledge processing performed by other than KM-level
knowledge workers. But the KM-level needs to manage itself as well. It
does so through Symbolic Representation, Building External
Relationships and Leadership activities.
Symbolic representation is an aspect of all managerial activity.
Managers have authority. Part of what maintains that authority is the
symbolism used and manipulated by them to express and claim the
legitimacy of their authority. One of the best ways to manipulate the
symbols of managerial authority is through storytelling, either
performed by the manager or by supporters of the manager's authority.
One way to undermine a manager's informal authority is to tell stories
illustrating the fallibility of a manager.
Symbolic representation activities include participation in
organizational ceremonies and functions by personnel identified with
knowledge management. Storytelling at organizational functions is an
important way for KM representatives to reinforce their authority. And
skill in storytelling is an important skill for such personnel to have.
Leading includes hiring, training, motivating, monitoring, and
evaluating staff. It also includes informing and persuading non-KM
agents within the enterprise of the validity of KM process activities,
and consensus-building about those activities. In most of these
activities, storytelling is used frequently and is an important skill.
It is hard to imagine leaders motivating or persuading without the aid
of stories, or consensus-building occurring without storytelling,
- Building External Relationships
Building external relationships means performing those activities
intended to produce friendships, alliances, and "partnerships" with
decision makers external to one's own company. These relationships are
essential to knowledge managers for acquiring sources of information.
They are also essential for providing "role models" for knowledge
managers. And storytelling? Can you imagine making friends, building
alliances, and concluding partnerships without using stories? When you
do these things you have to tell your own story, and the story of your
company, and the story of how you and your company fit together.
Storytelling and KM-level Knowledge Processes
Knowledge Managers, like other knowledge workers, perform a lot of
routine work, punctuated by new challenges, accompanied by knowledge
gaps, in their case about how to manage enhancing knowledge processing
among other knowledge workers, problem recognition, knowledge claim
formulation, knowledge claim evaluation, and knowledge integration. In
other words, knowledge life cycles occur ay the KM-level as well as at
the business process/business management levels, and knowledge
production and knowledge integration occur at the KM level as well.
In previous blogs, I've described how storytelling fits into knowledge
production and knowledge integration. The role of storytelling is
essentially the same at the KM-level.
Storytelling and KM-level Business Processes
KM-level business processes include: crisis handling, changing
knowledge processing rules, allocating KM resources in interventions,
and negotiating agreements with managers of other functions.
Crisis Handling involves such things as meeting CEO requests for new
competitive intelligence in an area of high strategic interest for an
enterprise, and directing rapid development of a KM support
infrastructure in response to requests from high level executives.
Crisis handling can involve the full range of other KM activities. So
the role of storytelling in crisis handling is described by its role in
the other activities.
- Changing Knowledge Processing Rules
Information acquisition, individual and group learning, knowledge claim
formulation, knowledge claim evaluation, broadcasting,
searching/retrieving, teaching, and sharing are all at least partly
composed of rule governed tasks. Knowledge workers execute these tasks
and knowledge managers produce the process rules. Knowledge managers
also change the rules once they produce new knowledge about them.
Changing the rules of knowledge processing requires communicating the
changes to knowledge workers. Stories are part of this communication
process and may be used to communicate problems with old rules and the
advantages of new ones.
- Allocating KM Resources in Interventions
Allocating resources includes allocations for knowledge processing and
KM support infrastructure, training, professional conferences, salaries
for KM staff, funds for new KM programs, etc. Since allocating
resources involves using a range of communication methods, techniques,
and activities, stories are as much a part of this process as they are
of any process relying on communication. Stories are not the only
things that are communicated as part of this process, but they are one
of many types of content that have a part to play.
- Negotiating Agreements with Managers of Other Functions
Negotiating agreements with representatives of other business processes
over levels of effort for KM, the shape of KM programs, the ROI
expected of KM activities, etc., is an essential knowledge management
function. And this function too, involves communication, persuasion,
and informing others of one's case. It is yet another area in which
storytelling is one of the methods used in performing a process. In
negotiating, storytelling may be particularly important since long
negotiations over complex issues often require using stories along with
analogies to drive home particular points during negotiation.
Storytelling, Knowledge Processing and Knowledge Management
This blog completes a series relating storytelling to problem solving,
knowledge integration, and Knowledge Management. I've tried to show
that storytelling and stories are, or can be useful in nearly all of
the sub-processes of problem solving and knowledge integration and all
of the activities of KM. But having said that, I must again also point
to the limitations of stories and story telling. First, we must keep in
mind that stories describe happenings. They are localized in time and
describe a pattern of particulars, rather than a general model. Stories
rely on assumptions that are general in character, but they don't
explicitly offer generalizations as knowledge claims. So they can't help where generalizations are needed either in knowledge production or integration or to add to our understanding.
for stories and storytelling should be tempered in the area of problem
solving, by an equivalent enthusiasm for critically assessing competing
stories, because stories are conjectural in nature and could easily be
In the first blog in this series, 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.
Third, in knowledge integration I pointed out that stories can be viewed as effective in eliciting real understanding or as effective in eliciting manipulated agreement
and that in cases where the latter is true, knowledge integration
through storytelling may create agreement but doesn't help the
organization to adapt.
Fourth, in discussing the role of stories in knowledge integration, I
pointed out that a problem 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.
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.
Finally, in this blog, we saw that storytelling is useful in every one
of the nine major activities of KM. However, that is mostly due to the
role of storytelling in human communication generally. Also my
reasoning was very much based on a very general definition of stories,
so while my conclusion may be correct, an analysis of which types of
stories are most important in each KM activity category still needs to
Firestone, J. and McElroy, M. (2003) Key Issues in the New Knowledge
Management, Burlington, MA: KMCI Press/Butterworth-Heinemann.
Firestone, J. (2000) "Knowledge Management: A Framework for Analysis
and Measurement," White Paper Prepared for Executive Information
Wilmington, DE, October 1, 2000, Available at: http://www.dkms.com/white_papers.htm
Mintzberg, H. (1973)"A New Look at the Chief Executive's Job," Organizational Dynamics, AMACOM, Winter, 1973.