Eric D. Brown presents tonight: “Applications of Storytelling in Knowledge Management” [I love serendipity!]

Three papers:

  1. Bhardwaj, M., and Monin, J. (2006). Tacit to explicit: Interplay shaping organization knowledge.
  2. Swap, W.,  Leonard, D., Shields, M., and Abrams, L. (2001). Using mentoring and storytelling to transfer knowledge in the workplace.
  3. Nielsen and Madsen (2006). Using storytelling to reflect on IT projects.

Storytelling: present in every culture, from beginning of history. Oral form is oldest, paintings come in close second, then written and architectural

Reasons we use stories: from Sole and Wilson (2002, Harvard Grad School Ed): sharing knowledge, sharing values, develop trust and commitment, generate emotional connection. They also mention the concept of unlearning, getting rid of bad habits and practices (but Eric leaves that one out of this presentation, as it doesn’t quite fit here… but if I weren’t so busy typing, I’ll bet I could think of a way it does!)

  1. sharing knowledge: storytelling shares tacit knowledge more easily, provides context and focus. See how Xerox field engineers gathered to share stories (Brown and Gray [1995], “The People Are the Company,” Fast Company): anthropologist hired by Xerox followed these engineers around, found they weren’t just shooting the breeze! They were doing serious knowledge management! Re-engineering consultant (remember, that was big in 1995) might have seen those chat sessions as a waste of time. Older more experienced workers were sharing knowledge with the younger folks!
  2. sharing values: convey values, ethics, morals, norms. Storytelling can change the perception of values by describing what future values should be. if you can tell your own story, you can better capture your own values than another storyteller. You are your best storyteller.
  3. develop trust and commitment: help people understand who you are and what you stand for. See the Public Conversations Project: helping communities develop their stories, share them, help see opponents in better light and deal with issues constructively
  4. generate emotional connection: stories convey emotions! Unexpected twists and turns (good narrative) grab people’s atention, generate connection. Emotional connection generates stickiness.

Deokar: we are social creatures. We convey a lot of information in the expressiveness of conversations; we hack a lot of that information off when we turn our knowledge into text. The unique personal style of the speaker can make a more memorable impression than the plain paper [justification for doctoral dissertation as multimedia podcast!]. Stories get us thinking and create memories on which we can hook our knowledge (details, moral of the story, etc.).

Bhardwaj, M. and Monin (2006)

Remember: explicit knowledge is the visible know-what of the organization. Polyani defines it as the K we can communicate using formal language. Tacit K is the invisible know-how, the internal stuff. Takeuchi defines it as “deeply rooted in an individuals actions and experiences as well as in the ideals, values, or emotions” a person embraces

Current tech rocks for capturing explicit K. Tacit K has to be transformed into explicit K  to transmit in current tech. Storytelling may embed tacti knowledge in narratives and share it with others.

Four big themes in lit review:

  1. tacit K mgmt
  2. mobilizing tacit K
  3. using tacit K to solve problems
  4. using tacit K to make decisions

Authors interview 8 HR professional in 8 diff k-intensive orgs, used open-ended questions to encourage narratives (you don’t get that with yes/no questions)


  • Authors found tacit K plays huge role in orgs, touches psychological, intellectual, knowledge, functional, social, and cultural subsystems of an organization
  • Ego plays a huge role in hampering tacit K mgmt: stories can include narcissism and self-aggrandizement.
  • Attitude of top management plays big role in whether tacit K is used

Future research suggested:

  • how can orgs reduce risk of dependency on tacit K held by a few employees?
  • how can orgs activate tacit K for greater good of org?

Deokar recommends big table on page 78 of article!

Swap, Leonard, Shields, and Abrams (2001)

citing Drucker: we live in K-based economy, it’s the currency of biz, very expensive (time-consuming) to gain: so how do orgs take advantage of K, move it from experienced workers to novices?

Two key characteristics of expertise:

  1. Expertise developed through experience! They practice, learn by doing. Research often finds you need to practice for 10 years to reach “expert” stage. (How many orgs get to keep people for 10 years?)
  2. Experts recognize patterns and can easily call on their knowledge to respond to those patterns.

How to share expertise [Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995)]: internalization and socialization

How to internalize and socialize:

  • formal teaching methods don’t work! that’s only for explicit K! try boiling 10+ years of experience into a memo or lesson plan or textbook. ha!
  • informal methods better!
  • get a mentor! they know system inside and out, serve as informal teachers — again, it’s not a workshop, not a classroom experience.
  • Lit Review shows mentoring provides transfer of skills, managerial systems, and values
  • storytelling: use organizational stories: narrative pf past management actions etc. that are communciated informally thru the org; must have context, focus, and be memorable to be effective
  • stories better for sharing values, managerial systems, and tacit K, but not good for sharing critical skills: folks still need to go out and learn by doing!
  • stories work by making knowledge memorable via the “availability heuristic” (a.k.a. vivid imagery)
    • illustrating availability heuristic: you and I are more scared of bears than moose. we see and hear more scary bear stories. But statistically, moose kill more hikers than bear! Getting eaten by a bear is a more vivid story than getting trampled by a moose.
  • stories help people remember knowledge via elaboration, context that listeners can understand, relate to, and draw from.
  • stories done right tap into episodic memory, memory gained from direct experience, which is easier for people to access. Tell your stories vividly enough that people feel like they’ve lived it with you, or at least can connect it better with their own experiences and mingle the memories.

Remember: just calling someone a mentor isn’t enough; you have to have a formal mentoring program for folks to learn how to be mentors first (says the research!)

Managers mustn’t devalue “watercooler talk”: it’s not just people wasting time (so how much of that do I miss out on by not going to the teacher’s lounge or social functions?). One manager’s gossip is another manager’s KM!

Nielsen and Madsen (2006)

Model uses storytelling to capture tacit knowledge upon completion of an IT project: folks share postmortems!

Lit Review:

  • Systems development lit suggests two methods of learning from others’ experiences: learning by doing and learning by reading
  • Written docs (lessons learned docs, project postmortems) capture explicit, not tacit

organizational vs individual knowledge

  • org knowledge is explicit, actionable
  • indiv K is tacit, internal… and required to create org knowledge
  • three mechs for learning org K: experience accumulation (learn by do), verbal K articulation (tell others!), written K codification (hardcore conversion)
  • base level of shared K is prereq for org K: everyone’s got to understand it

Storytelling can build that shared K base! builds shared understanding, makes sense of past actions, provides for future vision

Research project here:

  • authors worked with AstraZeneca, facilitated workshop to help understand why projects were failing; visited with some folks, decided to hold a reflection workshop with folks from across the organization
  • workshop intended to create shared understanding of what might go wrong in IT projects, of when and why project succeed, and collect experiences manual for use on future IT projects
  • ten employees interviewed about project experiences
  • each person had a different outlook on the project and why it failed or succeeded
  • the stories that resonated the most had the clearest context, detail, and vivid imagery that allowed the listeners to really feel like par tof the story
  • four steps of workshop model with oral stories
    1. Crafting: conversion of experience into story
      1. forces storyteller to look at the project experience as a connected experience, related to everyone’s experience
      2. must weave purpose, stakeholders, and events into narrative
    2. Telling: articulation of the story
      1. provides examples of issues and outcomes
      2. provides insights only the storyteller has
      3. provides opportunity for questions and conversation
    3. Understanding: listeners internalize story, make it their own
      1. must be sure the listeners understand and internalize the story (can’t just fire and forget: you have an obligation to your audience! Listen to them, feel their vibe, think about whether what you are saying makes sense!)
    4. Documenting: codification of the story
      1. Record those oral stories and the shared understanding created by them
  • Workshop model converts tacit to explicit
  • result of workshop: documented story, K sharing about past, present, and future (!) projects

Additional Resources:

  1. Boyce (1996) Organizational story and storytelling: A critical review. Journal of Org Change Mgmt, 9…
  2. Sole and Wilson (2002). Storytelling in organizations: The power and traps of using stories to share knowledge in organizations. Harvard Graduate School of Education
  3. Tobin and Snyman (2004). Storytelling and knowledge management: What’s the story so far? Mousaion, 22, 34-51.