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Narrative Insight Method



Since my dad worked mainly as an electrical engineer and my mother as an English/Drama teacher, I’ve always felt pulled in two directions: toward science, mathematics, systemization, practical solutions, and formalism and simultaneously toward the arts, particularly various types of storytelling. I finally had a chance to synthesize these two areas while managing a project for several years at IBM Research on the business uses of stories and storytelling. Though this project provided value in various ways to many within IBM, there was no single part of IBM whose main business was stories. For this reason, finding funding was a continual challenge. Our closest allies, apart from my senior manager, Colin Harrison, were The IBM Knowledge Management Institute, researchers at LOTUS, and a part of IBM internal education located in Atlanta. My group at IBM Research included Carl Tait, Andrew Gordon, Cynthia Kurtz, Debbie Lawrence, and Frank Elio. Larry Prusak and David Snowden from the IBM Knowledge Management Institute were particularly interested in stories as were Michael Muller, Dan Gruen, and Larry Moody at LOTUS. The method described here was mainly developed by Cynthia Kurtz, Dave Snowden, and Neal Keller of IBM Research Education though writing the method as a “Pattern” is my own responsibility.

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created originally by John C. Thomas in January of 2002, and revised substantially during April, 2018.



Story Circles.


Experts learn valuable lessons from their experiences. Such lessons can guide less experienced people. In small trusted groups, a natural, effective, and traditional way for experts to share their knowledge is to trade stories (See, e.g., Orr, 1990, Talking about Machines). A challenge for large organizations is to extend this process to larger groups and non-co-located personnel. Writing stories is a possibility; however, in many cases experts are too busy to write stories and find the process of writing stories difficult and unnatural as compared with telling stories. The method describes here minimizes the time of the expert, allows them to tell stories in a natural setting and organizes the knowledge in a useful manner.

Basically, about 12-24 people who are all interested in a topic but have various levels of experience are brought together for an hour. After a short introduction, the large group is subdivided into smaller groups of 3-5 people each, making sure that each group includes at least one experienced person and at least one less expert. For about 35 minutes, the group tells stories about their experiences and these are recorded for later transcription and analysis. The small group decides which story would be best to share with the larger group. The “best” story from each subgroup is shared with the larger group and this is followed by a short discussion. This plenary session is also recorded. People are thanked for their participation and given some sort of very nominal gift or memento.



Within societies and organizations, people generally differentiate into specialties. Many of these specialties require years of training and experience before people reach maximum effectiveness. In most societies, mechanisms have been set up so that those with more experience can help those with less experience learn more effectively and efficiently than if every generation had to learn completely on their own. People tell stories for many reasons, but one major use of stories is to help create and share knowledge across levels of expertise and across generations.

Less expert people in a large organization or community of practice typically want to learn from more experienced people. This is beneficial for the individuals as well as for the larger organization or community of practice. In modern societies, many of the people who have relevant knowledge are physically distant from the people who need the knowledge. In many cases, much of the most valuable knowledge of experts is tacit knowledge.

An organization typically has people available who may not be expert in the subject matter but have relatively more expertise in writing stories and organizing educational materials. The experts in a given subject matter are typically very busy and in most cases, may lack both the skills and the time to produce good written stories.



Experts have valuable knowledge based on their experience. However, experts in organizations are typically very busy people. They are willing to share stories informally and orally but do not necessarily have the skill or patience to write stories. Moreover, it can be difficult to find stories relevant to a specific situation. In addition, stories often reveal lessons learned through the sharing of mistakes that were made by the experts. In fact, experienced people have generally made many mistakes through the course of their careers. They do not typically want to have all of these mistakes made public inside and outside of an organization.

If one is telling a story face to face, there are many cues about how the story is being received. The teller can sense whether the audience is understanding, interested, bored, or shocked for example. The teller can then adjust the story to suit the audience and the situation as they continue to tell the story. The writer of a story lacks this type of information to mold the story while it is being created.

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· The time of experts is valuable.

· Subject matter experts are typically not experts in producing educational materials.

· People expert in producing education materials need to gain access to high quality content.

· In many fields, much of the most important knowledge that experts gain through their experience is in the form of tacit knowledge.

· Tacit knowledge is not well communicated by formal methods but can often be well communicated by stories*.

· Experts telling stories of their relevant experiences orally to small groups that contain other experts as well as some novices comprises a natural way for experts to share experience.

· Storytelling occurs only when the social situation is right.

· Telling a story about one’s experiences increases the probability that someone else in a group will also share a story about their experiences.

· Producing written stories requires special skills.

· Experts who have experience relevant to novices may be remotely located from them.

· Different learners learn best at different rates, by different media, and in different styles.

· Since stories often reveal errors on the part of the storyteller, it can be important in competitive organizations to hide the identity of the storyteller while retaining the lessons learned.



Provide an informal setting conducive to storytelling; this is encouraged by several factors. 1. Provide non-standard seating arrangements with easily movable chairs. 2. Conduct in a room with an informal atmosphere. 3. The structure and content of the invitation should be friendly but make clear the importance of the activity. 4. Gather a commitment to participate, making sure people know their time commitment is for one hour only. 5. Provide friendly but clear reminders near the time of the session with an additional check on the commitment to participate. 6. Provide refreshments at the beginning of the meeting. 7. Limit participation to a group of 8 to 20. 8. Groups should include experts as well as people knowledgeable in the topic but less expert. 9. Set expectations both prior to and during the session that people will be sharing stories, (E.g., “We find that when a group of experts get together like this, they generally end up telling stories about their experiences.”). 10. Make the recording clear but not obtrusive, and modeling storytelling at the outset.

During the session itself: 1. Greet people warmly and thank them for coming. 2. Break people into 3-4 smaller groups. 3. Each group should include a facilitator/recorder. 4. Digitally record the sessions with separate high quality tape recorders for each subgroup. 5. Tell the subgroups that they will be sharing stories based on their experiences and that then the group will choose one story from each subgroup to share with the larger group. 6. Implement this plan. 7. Facilitate to gently guide people back to telling stories of concrete instances (as opposed, for instance, to making general statements or pronouncements). 8. After each subgroup shares its story with the whole group, allow discussion to continue, encouraging but not insisting on storytelling.


  1. We used this methodology to provide learning materials in the form of stories for NOTES 5. Such stories were not focused on how to invoke specific functions but rather on how to use NOTES to enhance your work practices or enhance team coordination and communication.
  2. We used this methodology to develop stories about “boundary spanning skills.” This was used for R&D personnel from a number of diverse organizations interested in organizational learning.
  3. Finally, we also used this method to develop learning materials for the IBM Patent Process based on multiple sessions.

Resulting Context:

After such sessions, it is necessary for the tapes to be transcribed and for analysts to find the lessons learned. The stories leading to the lessons learned were also included in shortened and anonymized format. In the case of the learning materials for the IBM Patent Process, the learning materials were in the form of Guided Exploration Cards. This form of documentation was originally developed by John Carroll and colleagues for product documentation. (See The Nurnberg Funnel, John Carroll, in references).  In other situations, stories and their lessons could be arranged in other ways.

While the intended “product” of using this method with respect to materials for “how to” produce patents were the Guided Exploration Cards, it also happened that master inventors and more novice inventors who were initially brought together for this exercise subsequently began additional fruitful collaborations and consultations. Indeed, sharing stories may typically have the effect of increasing group cohesion in the longer term as well as providing lessons learned.



Carroll, J. M. (1990), The Nurnberg Funnel: designing minimalist instruction for practical computer skill. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Orr, J. (1996), Talking about machines: an ethnography of a modern job. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press. (Available on Amazon).


*Thomas, J., Kellogg, W., & Erickson, T. (2001), The Knowledge Management Puzzle: Human and Social Factors in Knowledge Management. IBM Systems Journal, 40(4):863 – 884.


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