The Story of Story, Part 1



Right around the turn of the century, I managed a research project at IBM’s T. J. Watson Research Center on the business uses of stories and story-telling. The project was part of a larger effort on “knowledge management.” One of IBM’s major reasons for being interested arose from their increasing revenue stream from services. However, services such as consulting required a lot of labor; it was competitive. Therefore, the margins on this business were not so high as, for instance, in hardware or system software. IBM has invested a lot in tools so that they can make hardware very cheaply and effectively using relatively little labor. The company wanted to be able to something similar with consulting services. The idea was that we could use knowledge management so that the knowledge assets of top-level consultants could be, captured, organized, and then re-used by more junior (and less expensive) people thus rendering higher margins for the company. The success of this approach was fairly limited partly because the knowledge management methods were geared toward explicit rule-based knowledge and specific facts. Much of what experts “know”, including IBM’s top-level business consultants was tacit knowledge. Stories provided a natural way to capture tacit knowledge. Thus, the story project began. 


My simplistic initial idea was to build a story platform that would enable consultants to write stories about their experiences. After all, sharing stories orally is what experts naturally do anyway. Since I enjoy writing stories, I failed to realize initially all the reasons consultants would not want to share their experiences by writing stories. Writing stories is not so natural or fun for most folks. Partly because of the medium and partly because of higher expectations, it also takes more time. Perhaps, even more importantly, it takes extra time. When consultants share stories, they are often traveling, eating dinner, having drinks together and sharing stories is something done in a friendly off-hand way, but importantly, it does not take extra time in the way that using a computer system to write a story would. Besides, when a consultant says something out loud it is not typically recorded. So, if they misspoke or said something untoward, they have plausible deniability. When someone tells a story live, they also can sense how the story is being received in real time. If the listeners are “into it” the teller can draw things out and make it more vivid. On the other hand, if they are starting to play “Candy Crush” on their phones, you can cut it short. In writing, typically, first you write and then you get feedback. Of course, professional writers often improve things considerably with the help of a copy editor and proofreader. Anyway, over the course of time, we did develop a feasible way to have people tell stories and from those stories, provide information of use to other knowledge workers. 


Three Patterns for using stories. 

Narrative Insight Method describes techniques for gather valuable knowledge from experts through the use of storytelling.

Fostering Group Cohesion through Common Narratives is another storytelling technique: in this case, one focuses on building and disseminating stories that illustrate common values.

Fostering Community Learning via Transformed Narratives. This helps solve a dilemma. For organizational learning, it’s crucial to learn from people’s mistakes. Ordinarily though, mistakes are not just used for learning but to bar one from advancement, raises, and the esteem of one’s colleagues.

Here, however, I want to describe some of the things I found interesting about stories from personal observations and, to a lesser extent by reading. Here are just a few examples of interesting aspects of stories.

  • Good story writing is not magic. It’s craft. Mastery is is life-long quest, but one can quickly learn a few important things that will help you to write better, but also to enjoy more thoroughly the stories you see or read.
  • Stories are memorable and motivating. If you watch people telling stories, they are animated and engaged in a way that is rare when people are discussing facts, pronouncements, or pleasantries. 
  • Business-speak is grey, toneless, neutral, abstract and speaks to the intersection of people’s experiences. Stories on the other hand, can be colorful, concrete, emotional, and speak to the union of people’s experiences.  
  • Although stories are generally presented in a linear sequence, beneath that, the story actually has a hierarchical structure. Most stage plays have three acts. Within each act, there are a number of sequences. Within each sequence, there are scenes. Within each scene, there are “beats.” 
  • The three major dimensions of story are setting (where, when), plot structure (what happens), and character (the people; what they are like and what they want).  
  • Story lives on conflict; it explores the edges of human experience; it’s takes us on an empathic roller coaster ride.

In the next essay, we will begin to see more specifically how to use stories to help us discover problems and issues that a well-designed solution might solve. 


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