Sto­ries at work: un­lock the se­cret to busi­ness sto­ry­telling

The Smart Manager - - Reading Room - By in­dranil chakraborty

What’s one small step for a man, one gi­ant leap for mankind,’ said Neil Arm­strong on 20 July 1969.

Over the next few years, eleven other as­tro­nauts landed on the moon and got back to earth. Cer­tainly no mean feat then and no mean feat even now.

But can it hap­pen again? Why is it that we haven’t had hu­mans back on the moon since 1972? David W. DeLong in his book, Lost Knowl­edge: Con­fronting the Threat of an Ag­ing Work­force, has a very sur­pris­ing

1 an­swer—NASA no longer knows how to! He writes:

That’s be­cause some­time in the 1990s NASA lost the knowl­edge it had de­vel­oped to send as­tro­nauts to the moon. In an era of cost-cut­ting and down­siz­ing, the en­gi­neers who de­signed the huge Saturn five rock­ets used to launch the lu­nar land­ing craft were en­cour­aged to take early re­tire­ment from the space pro­gramme. With them went years of ex­pe­ri­ence and ex­per­tise about the de­sign trade-offs that had been made in build­ing the Saturn rock­ets. Also lost were what ap­pears to be the last set of crit­i­cal blue­prints for the Saturn booster, which was the only rocket ever built with enough thrust to launch manned lu­nar pay­load. Wow! Can you be­lieve that? Do you know whether parts of your or­ga­ni­za­tion are rein­vent­ing the wheel, not learn­ing from past ex­pe­ri­ences or mak­ing re­peated mis­takes?

Well, if your or­ga­ni­za­tion is even a few years old, this must be hap­pen­ing un­less you put in place a ro­bust knowl­edge man­age­ment prac­tice. Man­agers leav­ing or mov­ing to new as­sign­ments al­ways take valu­able knowl­edge with them. This is not be­cause of mal­ice but be­cause they just don’t know how much they know that the com­pany would need. Nei­ther does the com­pany.

In 2004, a study of 240 or­ga­ni­za­tions in the USA found that the great­est im­pact of em­ployee turnover was lost knowl­edge, not prof­itabil­ity! Even in a coun­try where

2 knowl­edge man­age­ment prac­tices have been around, lost knowl­edge had neg­a­tively af­fected a stag­ger­ing 78 per cent of the or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Lost knowl­edge is a con­cern for even com­pa­nies that have a de­tailed han­dover process. Why so?

There are two kinds of knowl­edge each of us carry about our jobs: ex­plicit and tacit. Ex­plicit knowl­edge is the ‘know-what’ of an

or­ga­ni­za­tion—knowl­edge that can be com­mu­ni­cated us­ing for­mal­ized lan­guage. Tacit knowl­edge is the ‘know-how’—knowl­edge that is deeply rooted in an in­di­vid­ual’s ac­tions and ex­pe­ri­ences, as well as in the ideals, val­ues or emo­tions that the per­son em­braces.


Ex­plicit knowl­edge is what we can put down in a de­tailed han­dover note or ex­press in han­dover dis­cus­sions. Tacit knowl­edge is what we un­know­ingly carry with us when we leave a po­si­tion or an or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Us­ing sto­ries is one of the more pow­er­ful knowl­edge man­age­ment prac­tices. Sto­ries trans­form tacit knowl­edge into ex­plicit knowl­edge and these be­come a great ve­hi­cle to share that knowl­edge.

Here is how we do it.

knowl­edge man­age­ment

The first step is to iden­tify the ar­eas in which the per­son leav­ing a po­si­tion has tacit knowl­edge. This is done by talk­ing to his or her se­niors, col­leagues and ju­niors. Ask ques­tions like: ‘What are the oc­ca­sions when you miss his pres­ence the most?’ or ‘What kind of prob­lems do you know he will have the so­lu­tions for?’ Some of the ques­tions you could ask the per­son him­self or her­self are: ‘What have been some of the fail­ures or failed projects dur­ing your ten­ure, and what have you learnt from them?’ or ‘What are the things you wish you knew about this job when you started?’ Hav­ing iden­ti­fied the ar­eas, you now need to get the per­son to tell you sto­ries about these ar­eas.

Once you have fin­ished the story-lis­ten­ing ses­sion, you need to tran­scribe your record­ing, and from the tran­scrip­tions cull out and clean up the sto­ries.

The best way to share these sto­ries is orally. Since the per­son con­cerned would not be avail­able for­ever, a good way to store these sto­ries are through video or au­dio record­ings. This record­ing has to be done sep­a­rately from the first story-lis­ten­ing ses­sion. When peo­ple tell sto­ries for the first time they are not al­ways sharp and to the point. In the first telling of the story, some­times peo­ple add in­for­ma­tion as they go along. For ex­am­ple, ‘Oh! This hap­pened in 1972’, or The sci­en­tist I spoke about ear­lier, I re­mem­ber his name now— Jay­deep Mal­ho­tra.’ So, once the sto­ries from the first round of story lis­ten­ing are cho­sen, they need to be cleaned up and or­ga­nized. Then we go back to the sto­ry­teller with a video recorder and ask them to retell the pol­ished story.

These record­ings, when in­dexed and made avail­able to the em­ploy­ees of the com­pany and the suc­ces­sor of this per­son, be­come a fan­tas­tic way of re­tain­ing knowl­edge.

To­day, NASA’s Academy of Pro­gram and Project Lead­er­ship (APPL) uses sto­ry­telling as a pri­mary ve­hi­cle for trans­fer­ring project man­age­ment ex­per­tise. This is done us­ing a se­ries of story-based knowl­edge-shar­ing meet­ings that are sup­ple­mented by ASK, a bi­monthly on­line mag­a­zine. ASK is ded­i­cated to sto­ries about project man­age­ment at NASA.

Many other or­ga­ni­za­tions across the world such as the World Bank, IBM, Corn­ing and Shell are us­ing sto­ry­telling to cap­ture, store and trans­fer knowl­edge.

There are sev­eral other uses of story lis­ten­ing, which are de­scribed be­low.

build­ing the em­ployer brand

Imag­ine this is 1992, you are a sec­ond-year MBA stu­dent, and you have just re­ceived a five-page let­ter from a friend who is a batch se­nior to you. Your friend has just spent the first two months of an eigh­teen-month train­ing pro­gramme at a lead­ing FMCG com­pany in the coun­try. A few ex­cerpts from the let­ter read like this:

... places that can­not be cov­ered by di­rect distri­bu­tion, e.g., small vil­lages are cov­ered by cin­ema vans. These vans are used as pro­pa­ganda ve­hi­cles in or­der to in­crease aware­ness about our prod­ucts.

Us­ing sto­ries is one of the more pow­er­ful knowl­edge man­age­ment prac­tices. Sto­ries trans­form tacit knowl­edge into ex­plicit knowl­edge and these be­come a great ve­hi­cle to share that knowl­edge.

Ex­cerpted with per­mis­sion from Pen­guin Ran­dom House In­dia from the book Sto­ries at Work: Un­lock the Se­cret to Busi­ness Sto­ry­telling by In­dranil Chakraborty.

In­dranil Chakraborty Pen­guin Ran­dom House In­dia 2018, 256 pgs, Hard­cover

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