Energizing Organizational Learning through Narrative #KMWorld

kmworld-socialSpeaker: Dr. Madelyn Blair, President, Pelerei

Session Description: Narrative intelligence is a critical approach that helps an organization to strengthen its organizational vision, enhance communication, share organizational knowledge, externalize and internalize tacit knowledge, encourage innovation, build communities, and to develop effective social media strategies. The speaker shares strategies, cases, and exercises on how using narrative intelligence through channels offered by social media and organizational communication can energize how the organization is communicating through digital channels.

[These are my notes from the KMWorld 2014 Conference. Since I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]


  • Sense-making is Key: There’s nothing more frustrating and de-energizing than feeling confused. In our lives, we like to make sense of things. “Turning experience into a story is a fundamental mode of sense-making.” When you listen to a story you become connected to it.  This opens up the possibilities of narrative becoming a learning tool. 
  • What’s Narrative Intelligence? It’s about how you approach a problem, using a mindset that understands that a story is the smallest unit of knowledge (to quote John Seely Brown). “It’s the search for the meaning that does not confuse.”
  • Narrative vs Story: Story concerns a specific event. Narrative is a collection of stories. In that collection, you can begin to see the patterns that exist across the stories. Through a collection of stories, you can imbue an organization with specific values. For example, at the Disney Company, they tell many stories about Walt Disney. These stories are all about creativity, imagination and entertainment.  They are also about making a difference and doing it well. Employees feel empowered by the stories. This is how the people in the company share and reinforce their company values. In effect, the stories create communities of practice.
  • Structure: Each story needs to answer some basic question –  who, how, why, when, where and what happened.  This is necessary to engage the audience. Narrative looks for common threads, emotions, values. While the story helps the storyteller make sense of a specific event, a narrative helps people within an organization with broader sense-making of the larger patterns.
  • Solve Problems by Turning Stories Inside Out: Start by identifying the business problem you want to solve. Put that “in the middle” of  a story that you’re about to create. That problem is the “what.” Then add to the story to provide the other elements (who, why, where , how, etc.). This helps identify possible solutions.
  • Want to learn more? For further information, see Making it Real: Sustaining Knowledge Management, edited by Annie Green.

Making the Case for KM: One Magic Washing Machine at a Time

Servis Superheat Washing Machine Poster (Poster 21)In a world run by bean counters, knowledge managers sometimes fear that they will get short shrift if they cannot marshal the data necessary to impress the folks in green eyeshades. The problem is, of course, that it can be challenging to find compelling metrics to support the case for KM. In the context of law firm knowledge management, we often say that KM done well helps lawyers work more efficiently and effectively.  But has anyone at your firm produced recent data to support this proposition?

This comparative lack of data has always made me uncomfortable.  We may shrug and say that trying to prove KM ROI is a fool’s errand, but that doesn’t always dispel the lingering discomfort. Consequently, I was heartened to receive a reminder this week from a master of data, Dr. Hans Rosling, of the value and limitations of data. Dr. Rosling is famous for making data sing. If you want an impressive demonstration of his abilities, take a look at his four-minute video below: 200 countries, 200 years, 4 minutes – the Joy of Stats.  By any measure, it’s a tour de force. Unfortunately, it isn’t one I could reasonably replicate standing before the executive committee of my firm.

So what is to be done?

Draw inspiration from Dr. Rosling’s most recent TED Talk about the Magic Washing Machine.  In  his usual fashion, he presents a stunning array of data relating to global population, income distribution and energy consumption.  All of it is interesting, however, the statistical pyrotechnics are slightly depressing for a data-challenged knowledge manager like me.  But then suddenly, at the 7:50 minute mark, he explains the magic of washing machines and does so without a single data point. Rather, he relies on anecdote and illustration to make his point very powerfully. At the end of the presentation, I remembered his explanation of the magic, not the specifics of the  data he provided during the bulk of the presentation.

When making the case for KM, don’t ever underestimate the power of storytelling.  In truth, Dr. Rosling’s greatest strength is his ability to tell a compelling story.  That story may be grounded in data, but it’s the narrative line rather than the scientific detail that remains in your memory.  You don’t need to be statistician or magician to pull this off.  Rather, you just need to be able to recognize —  and tell — a good story.

200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes – the Joy of Stats:

Dr. Hans Rosling and the Magic Washing Machine:

[Hat tip to Michael Mills of Neota Logic Inc. for sending me Hans Rosling’s TED talk on the Magic Washing Machine.  Hat tip to Evangeline Warren and Mark Salamon for sending me Dr. Rosling’s talk on the Joy of Stats.]

[Photo Credit:  Black Country Museums]


Tell Me A Good Story

When we work in an area like knowledge management that is hard to reduce to useful numbers, it can be challenging to prove ROI for the bean counters. In fact, some would argue that numbers can never tell the whole story regarding a knowledge management initiative. So what works better? Find your success stories and tell them until you are blue in the face.

When thinking about what makes an effective success story, consider the advice of Dan Heath (author of Made to Stick) as he talks about Subway’s fantastic “Jared” advertising campaign in the following Fast Company video clip.  As you may remember, Jared was the poster boy for losing astonishing amounts of weight while eating fast food. Heath uses this campaign to remind us of the three key attributes of an effective story:

  • Concreteness
  • Unexpectedness
  • Emotional Impact

So how do you make this work for you?  First, think about what has improved in your firm thanks to KM. Next, find specific success stories relating to that improvement that are concrete, surprising and have emotional impact.  Then get out there and tell your story.  If enough folks listen, you won’t need to worry quite so much about the bean counters.

[Photo Credit:  Loren Javier]


What’s Your Story?

Tell me one riveting story about your knowledge management system or its content.

Just one.

<I’m waiting…>


Too bad.  You and your KM system have flunked an essential test.

We’ve been raised from childhood to hear and tell stories.  We listen and we remember, sifting through the words until we find some meaning.  That’s been our process since childhood, and we don’t leave it behind when we go to the office.  It’s how we communicate, how we learn, and how we connect.   So then, why is it that we too often forget to seek out and tell compelling stories about our own work?

Finding the stories is just a matter of paying attention.  They surface in the moment — provided that you are looking for them.  If you’ve been oblivious until now, I’d encourage you to take a look at the video below from Radiolab called “Moments.”  As you will see, each brief moment captured in the video provides an eloquent hint of the story behind the picture.  It doesn’t take much effort to imagine what has just happened or is about to happen.

Now, look at your work and your life as if you are wielding the camera for Radiolab.  What moments are worth capturing?  What stories do they tell that help others learn about you and your work? What stories draw others to your work?

Look for the moments that embody a story, any story — whether about universal experiences or the singular experiences that set you and your work apart from others.  Capture and share those stories.  That’s how you explain what you do.  It may also be the best way to justify what you do.

A compelling narrative in the hands of a masterful storyteller is a powerful tool that creates wonderful opportunities.  Don’t waste it.

[h/t to Mary Jaksch at GoodLife Zen for pointing out this video.]

[Photo Credit:  Jill Clardy]


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Do They Give You Eggs for E2.0?

Be grateful for your insightful friends. Their wisdom can speed your path to learning. Accordingly, I’d like to thank Mark Gould and Jack Vinson, both of whom were kind enough to comment on my earlier post, The Four Chickens Problem.  In that post I discussed the challenges to adoption that organizations distributing bed nets face in their effort to eradicate malaria.  Using the example of the superb work of Nets for Life, I described one path we could take to effect behavioral change and expedite adoption:

  • Educate people as to the actual cause of the problem.
  • Educate people as to the theoretical benefits of the proposed solution.
  • Prove the solution in such an obvious way so that you make the theoretical real.
  • Include monitoring and evaluation to keep proving your case as you implement the solution in their community.

In his comment to that post, Jack Vinson dove a little deeper and pointed out that rather than just teaching people, it is far more effective to help them discover for themselves the benefits of the proposed solution.  When the solution comes from them, you don’t have to spend time winning their agreement.  Rather, you can spend your time and energy to support them in adopting the change they themselves have identified as beneficial.

Yesterday, Mark Gould wrote a wonderful review of Made to Stick, the work of Shawn Callahan (of Anecdote) and the power of storytelling.   In that context, he recounted The Four Chickens Problem and  Jack’s helpful advice, and then made the following observation:

These answers are fine, but they depend on ensuring that the message you are selling actually resonates with the audience. If there is a powerful story to tell, the education piece will follow.

He is right.  The team at Nets for Life have to powerful story to tell future recipients of bed nets and future underwriters of the bed net distribution program.  And, this story isn’t about statistics.  As told by Rob Radtke (President of Episcopal Relief & Development), it’s about lives and A Bowl of Eggs:

Last month when I was in northern Ghana, I visited about six different villages to assess our programs and to learn about some of the challenges facing the communities where we are working…. The particular villages that I was visiting on this trip are participating in the NetsforLife® program and so we were learning about the challenge that malaria poses to families with young children and pregnant women.  Virtually every family that we visited had lost a child to malaria and so the NetsforLife® program is making a huge impact here.


In the last village visit I made … the village headman came forward to say that he had a presentation to make to me on behalf of the entire village.  I was a bit taken aback. … As I sat down, the headman said that although they had a gift to give to me they were very embarrassed as it was such a small and poor gift.  He told me that they had wanted to give me an elephant as a gesture of thanks as that was the grandest gift they could imagine presenting to show how important the malaria nets were to their community.  However, they were too poor to give me an elephant.   (I was trying to imagine what I was going to do with an elephant!)

Instead all of the family heads of the village had met that morning to discuss what would be the most valuable thing that they could give me to show their gratitude for all that had happened in their village as a result of the net distribution.  They had decided to collect all of the eggs laid that day and present them to me in a bowl.

He explained that the eggs represented the entire village’s wealth for that day and while it wasn’t very much, it was everything they had.  [emphasis added]

Do we have anything comparable for our law firm knowledge management or Enterprise 2.0 implementations?

We have to be in the business of story gathering and storytelling.  In the world of knowledge management and Enterprise 2.0, it can be hard to find numbers that paint an accurate picture.  So, we have to find the stories that resonate and we need to develop the skill to tell those stories effectively.  Until that happens, it will be hard to persuade anyone to overcome their inertia to try something new.

[Photo Credit:  laurenipsum]


What Numbers Can’t Do

Recently I had the interesting experience of reading survey results relating to a subject I actually knew something about. At first blush, the numbers were quite impressive. And then I read a little more closely and discovered that the presentation gave the impression of results that were better than warranted by reality. Since just the “bare numbers” had been reported, important context and nuance were lost. As a result, the story the numbers told was a little misleading.

So how do we restore context, nuance and meaning? And, more importantly, how do we help initiate needed change within our organizations? According to the folks at Anecdote, the answer lies in telling good stories and then listening properly to those stories:

Surveys and metrics can uncover trouble in an organisation, but they usually don’t help you identify the reasons for dysfunctions, let alone generate the resolve to springboard people into action. Instead, learn to use stories as listening posts and tap into the emotion to spark action. From time immemorial, stories have contained collective lessons in condensed form. When gathered and examined, stories that are told in your organisation reveal important themes and patterns that in turn indicate effective solutions.

To be clear, I’m not trying to trash quantitative analysis. However, I do believe there are some things that can be communicated best by numbers and other things that can be communicated accurately only through narrative. Be very sure that when you make your choices about what to measure, how to measure and how to report the results, you choose the right tools and methods. If you cut corners here you will compromise your project and, possibly, your credibility. Why risk it?

[Thanks to Stan Garfield for pointing out the Anecdote post.]


Storytelling and Law Firm KM

As I was writing my earlier posts recounting Dave Snowden’s concept of “fragmented knowledge” and Fred Nikols’ strong recommendation that we focus knowledge management on human interactions and development rather than structured content, I must admit that I experienced mild anxiety about the implications of this for law firm knowledge management.

For years we’ve been chasing the Holy Grail of model documents and precedents, practice guides and practice notes (best practice materials), checklists and timetables, and the like. These are all examples of structured knowledge that is difficult and expensive to capture, but is so highly valued within a law firm. I imagined having to tell our management committee that rather than working on a record number of model documents this year, I’d be spending my time collecting anecdotes from lawyers. Next, I worried about whether storytelling lawyers actually existed. And then it struck me, if lawyers are humans and if Snowden and Nikols are right about knowledge and human behavior, then even lawyers must engage in storytelling to exchange knowledge. Based on this very narrow view of human beings (or homo narrans, as Snowden refers to them) and some further reflection, I’m happy to report that lawyers are human (really) and do tell stories.

And when do they tell their stories? At practice group meetings, when lawyers provide an oral debriefing on the highlights, challenges and lessons learned of recent or current matters. In formal continuing legal education sessions, when more experienced lawyers use their stories to illustrate the legal points they need to convey in order to help their colleagues master new developments in the law. When lawyers do pitches, they share with prospective clients the stories of their successes with similarly-situated clients. It’s these stories that help the prospective client envision being a client of the storytelling lawyer.

So what are the implications for law firm knowledge management? It would suggest that we should broaden our focus beyond capturing written materials in document management systems and Portals since it is unlikely that many of these valuable stories will ever be written down and stored there. Instead, we should collect, organize and distribute video clips of these stories that can be played and replayed at the point of need. Further, we should consider investing in search engines that can parse, profile and index audio-visual content. It also means that we need to bring the rigor of model document and best practice document creation to the art of storytelling. We must train our lawyers to tell stories well — stories that have a point that is clearly articulated and easily understood.

These are challenges that require law firm knowledge managers to take a turn from the well-trodden path of managing documents. It promises to be a very interesting journey.