Storytelling is prevalent in every organization. It forms the informal social glue that keeps organizations together. Story telling recants organizational successes, failures, what might have been, what never happened. When someone comes up with what appears to be a new or innovative idea, the first layer of conversation typically involves looking at the inspiration from various perspectives, interpretations and analysis to determine if the idea is worth pursuing or seeking further encouragement. This new story begins to infiltrate the social fabric of the organization.
 Andrew Cox writes “Thus these stories could be regarded as social in least three senses: because they were improvised socially, because part of their benefit was to produce a sense of belonging, and because some of the material of the stories is about people, customers.”
Social networking tools are an invaluable repository to capture this involving story. The collaborative nature of social networking offers a plethora of communications levers from wikis, to documentation management, blogging, chat and others as means to explore the conversation. The social inclusion of participants can be expanded or contracted as desired the idea morphs, ambiguity expands and rationality converges to validate or repeal the evolving artefact. At its core, this is what storytelling is all about.
As this new reflective knowledge begins to take shape (e.g. research proposal, white papers, unofficial prototypes) and becomes solidified, the storytelling begins to give way to definable, tangible, explainable discussions and reviews. In this way, the organization’s capacity begins to translate much of its tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge. Design features are refined, business decision support systems attempt to validate the commercial success, and operational support and strategic fit are investigated. The original storytelling, it would seem, has fulfilled its purpose and now has been converted into a knowledge management process. Is that really the case?
A counterforce to new storytelling and knowledge exploration is, ironically, the organization itself. All organizations have a cultural definition that ebbs and flows over time. The cultural definition can be viewed as the dominant storytelling trait of ‘this is how we do things around here’. As business models are exploited, standard operating procedures are defined, organizational learning and growth ascend and the customer begins to rewards us with repeated business. This is all well and good and imperative to ensuring the basic financial business model components are aligned.
The difficulty stems from the fact that the organization has its own storytelling or messaging to get across to its community. Sometimes new and old storytelling clash and if the old storytelling continues to prevail, the organization begins to stagnate. The incumbent storytelling has its own cultural inertia and it may not be a simple matter to overcome. This often results in good ideas going unnoticed such as Xerox with it PARC’s innovation and Nucor as a mini-mill giant to name a couple of well researched organizations.
As importantly, being cognizant as to what is happening to knowledge management within the firm. Organizations, like knowledge, are volatile identities with plenty of complexities. Just because information is codified into a structured format doesn’t mean we can disconnect the social ingredients from the knowledge itself; however, this is often the starting point where knowledge management begins to completely take over. To oversimplify, we have a problem, a cause and then a solution. That solution, often time as it evolves into a business case, becomes a new project.
Project management often looks upon ambiguity as something that needs to be boxed in, “solutioned” and change-managed. Without these qualifiers, projects will often undergo immediate stress fractures and project ‘failures’ are more likely than not. This is a reasonable position to assume; however, this approach is allied with the working assumption that knowledge management is reasonably concrete and devoid of any social processes or input. It is the absence of the social context from the original storytelling that is the source of the functional gap.
If there isn’t a community of practice and/or a social networking application that can complement the project team’s knowledge arsenal, the project team will probably suffer the slings and arrows of unknown project risks.
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Andrew Cox. Reproducing knowledge: Xerox and the story of knowledge management. (2006 July 20). Retrieved April 19, 2011, from http://www.palgrave-journals.com/kmrp/journal/v5/n1/full/8500118a.html.
Robert Castel is the founder of Information Resource Technologies and is responsible for Business Development with Vinezoom. He has extensive experience implementing high risk, complex IT related projects in Canada, the US and United Kingdom.
As an independent project manager, Robert’s clients have been the major Canadian banks for national and international initiatives employing IT Service Management frameworks within voice and data infrastructures, application conversions, directory services and change management projects. In addition, he has worked with a Federal healthcare agency involving security and privacy of information related initiatives, and the Province of Ontario.
Robert is currently in the third year of Athabasca University’s Executive MBA Program.