Telling stories is at the heart of KM

Storytelling, which comes naturally to just about everyone, could be the missing element in the many knowledge management initiatives that have failed to make an impact in the past decade, some experts say.

A knowledge management system is intended to make the expertise of top-performing individuals available throughout an organization and shorten the learning curve for new or less experienced employees.

The problem, some experts say, is that organizations typically fail to capture the kind of information that makes a knowledge management application an indispensable resource for their employees. If people do not see the value in such an application, they will not use it or contribute to it. It will be left to languish.

But thoughtful storytelling could potentially reverse that trend, those experts say. The narrative form makes it easier for people to convey ideas and details that might otherwise be left unsaid. Stories also make it easier for listeners to stay engaged and absorb information.

That is because storytelling is part of human nature, an age-old way of sharing information and cultural values, said Carol Metzker, a consultant on organizational learning who is based in Westchester, Pa. “Stories are everywhere, whether we choose to look at them and focus on them or not,” Metzker said. “You don’t have to have someone say, ‘Let’s get together and tell stories.’ It happens.”

But to take advantage of this seemingly innate ability, organizations need to understand how stories work.

A door to tacit knowledge
Knowledge management proponents often talk about the tacit knowledge that guides experts in the work they do but often eludes the most well-intentioned documentary efforts. It’s not that experts mean to withhold information, said Gary Klein, chief scientist at Klein Associates. It’s just that the best employees are not always conscious of their real expertise. Klein Associates, a division of Applied Research Associates, is a consulting firm based in Fairborn, Ohio.

Their success comes from knowledge that people often cannot describe, Klein said, speaking last month at the Knowledge Management conference sponsored by FCW Media Group. Asked how they know what to do, experts tend to talk about experience, hunches and intuition, or they cite existing policies and procedures, even though they do not necessarily follow them.

The trick, Klein said, is to think in terms of narratives. Instead of focusing on generalities — for example, asking questions that begin, “How do you…” or “What do you…” — ask experts about specific cases in the recent past and have them describe what happened and how they reacted. A narrative approach makes it much easier to delve into experts’ thought processes, which is where real knowledge is found, Klein said.

That was the case when he worked with a group of nurses assigned to a neonatal intensive care unit. Some of the nurses had a much better track record than others of identifying and avoiding potential health problems, and the hospital wanted to capture their knowledge to share with other nurses.

The successful nurses appeared to notice clues that others did not see. But they couldn’t describe those clues when asked the question at an abstract level, Klein said. So he pulled up a recent case and said, “Tell me the story of that baby.” In the process of discussing specific events, Klein’s team was able to compile a list of symptoms that those nurses were paying attention to. Steve Denning, a consultant and writer based in Washington, D.C., emphasizes what he called the co-creative nature of storytelling. An effective narrative imparts information to the listeners and spurs them to think about how a story applies to their own work.

That is especially true when it comes to what Denning has dubbed “springboard narratives.” Those are stories aimed primarily at spurring people to act or change the way they think. Denning said such narratives should avoid unnecessary details that might otherwise distract listeners from the point of the story.

Digital storytelling
Because of all the intangibles involved, proponents of storytelling often say they prefer face-to-face or group settings. Something is lost, they say, when a story is captured on a disk. For example, because it is one step removed, a digital video is unlikely to be as effective as a live exchange, even if its content is good.

But Michael Kull, principal of Minneapolis-based Amplifi, said it is worthwhile to transfer storytelling to a digital medium. One-on-one dialogue is ideal, Kull said, but it is important to consider whether it limits the number of people with whom you communicate. He refers to knowledge management as “scaling the water cooler.” It is important to think about methodology and purpose, he added.

Video is important because it is a rich medium, Kull said. But leaders beginning a knowledge management initiative need to learn how to ask questions that elicit compelling stories. It is a matter of asking the right questions in the right ways to draw out the desired knowledge, the emotion and other nonverbal cues that put the information in context, Kull said. If the questions are not evocative, the context will be lost.

At the beginning of the initiative, leaders also need to think about how they will disseminate the knowledge, Kull said. Many people have a storage mentality when it comes to knowledge management. Once they create content, he said, they leave it in a database for users to find. What is needed instead is a publishing mentality, Kull said. “You need to think of who is your audience and how are you going to reach them,” he said. He advises organizations to have their human resource and information technology departments collaborate on knowledge management projects.

HR experts understand how to incorporate knowledge management content into training programs, ensuring they get put to good use. But they need the IT experts to help them use technology to create compelling content, Kull said. “E-learning is the other side of the coin of knowledge management. Once you capture the knowledge, it’s about getting it into the heads of other people.”

Digital storytelling: Keep it simpleICF International, a consulting firm based in Fairfax, Va., has developed a knowledge management initiative for the Federal Highway Administration that takes advantage of relatively low-cost commercial software to capture the expertise of some FHWA’s senior executives. ICF consultants work with FHWA officials to develop what they call knowledge nuggets, in which they share experiences and lessons learned in dealing with important issues. The consultants help the senior officials come up with their major points and script a story. Using a standard PC microphone, the executives record five-to-10-minute audio presentations, which are paired with Microsoft PowerPoint slides.

Although they are fairly simple, the clips are more effective than a traditional text-based approach to sharing lessons learned, said Mark Youman, a principal at ICF. “When you hear them speak it, they give context to the information that they tend not to do when they write,” he said. “It is also quicker for them. They don’t have time to sit down and get into that quiet space they need to write.”

ICF creates the knowledge nuggets with Macromedia Breeze, a multimedia software product for online training and Web conferencing. Users play the clips using Macromedia Flash, a common product on most PCs. The approach is simple and affordable for the agency, Youman said. The presentations will be available to FHWA employees through communities of practice that the agency has established. Such communities reflect a trend in which the disciplines of knowledge management and e-learning are blended to help agencies keep the knowledge flowing, even as they deal with tight travel budgets, Youman said.

— John Stein Monroe

Where to learn about storytelling for knowledge managementBooks and Web sites about storytelling and knowledge management have been steadily emerging in the past six or seven years. Here are some of the popular resources.

  • Storytelling: Passport to Success in the 21st Century
  • Transcripts and related material from storytelling conferences held in 2001 and 2003. www.creatingthe21stcentury.org

  • Portals and KM
  • A blog about the practical applications of portals, blogs and knowledge management. billives.typepad.com/portals_and_km/2004/08/ storytelling_an.html

  • “The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative”
  • By Stephen Denning, April 2005

  • “Storytelling in Organizations: Why Storytelling Is Transforming 21st Century Organizations and Management”
  • By John Seely Brown, Stephen Denning, Katalina Groh and Laurence Prusak, August 2004

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