Storytelling & Narratives

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Storytelling and Narratives

There is an increasing realisation of the power of story telling and narrative as a way not just of information transition but as a means of negotiating meanings and developing innovation and knowledge. Such realisation is linked to an understanding of the importance of tacit knowledge, within organisations and within communities. tacit knowledge is defined by Polyani as “knowledge that we do not know we have. In a study David Orr showed how knowledge about practice was shared amongst photocopying technicians by telling ‘war stories’ in break times. The transfer of tacit knowledge was important because the formal knowledge contained in manuals was inadequate for solving many day to day problems. Nonaku and Kono have written of how tacit knowledge is transferred to shared and explicit knowledge within organisations through a knowledge development loop. Story telling and the use of metaphor is a key tool for such knowledge conversion.

Narrative & Meanings

Steve Denning explains the use of narrative in establishing meanings.

Definition of Narrative

A narrative or story in its broadest sense is anything told or recounted; more narrowly, something told or recounted in the form of a causally-linked set of events; account; tale,: the telling of a happening or connected series of happenings, whether true or fictitious.

Narrative meaning is created by establishing that something is a part of a whole and usually that something is the cause of something else. It is usually combined with human actions or events that affect human beings. The meaning of each event is produced by the part it plays in the whole episode.

To say what something means is to say how it is related or connected to something else. To ask the meaning of an event is to ask how it contributed to the story in which it occurs. It is the connections or relations between events.

Meaning is a social phenomenon. Meaning is produced not only by individuals but by groups, communities, societies and cultures which maintain - through language and agreed understandings - knowledge of the connections between signifying sounds and singifying events.

Groups, communities, societies and cultures also preserve collections of typical narrative meanings in their myths, fairy tales, legends, histories and stories. To participate in a group, community, society or culture requires a general knowledge of these accumulated narrative meanings. The cultural stock of meanings are dynamic and are added to by new contributions from members and deleted by lack of use.

Narrative meaning is about connections. It links individual human actions and events into inter-related aspects of an understandable composite. Narrative displays the significance that events have for one another. (The anti-story makes explicit that events do not have causal connections between each other.)

Functions of Storytelling

Storytelling can play different functions within a community (NHS, 2005).

  • “Storytelling for communications – In contrast to the conventional approach which views communications as the sending of a message from a communicator to a recipient, storytelling is based on a more interactive view of communication. Because the listener imaginatively recreates the story in his or her own mind, the story is not perceived as coming from outside, but rather as something that is part of the listener's own identity. The idea becomes the listener's own.
  • Storytelling to capture tacit knowledge – Tacit knowledge can be a multi-layered and multi-dimensional thing and as such it is often difficult to articulate (for example, have you ever tried to explain to someone who can’t swim how to swim, without actually showing them?). Stories can provide a way of allowing people to express and share tacit knowledge in rich and meaningful ways, rather then being forced to articulate it in more ‘structured’ ways that can detract from its value.
  • Storytelling to embody and transfer knowledge – Similarly, a simple story can communicate a complex multi-dimensioned idea, not simply by transmitting information as a message, but by actively involving the listeners in co-creating that idea. Furthermore, as a story is told and retold, it changes, and so the knowledge embodied in it is constantly being developed and built upon.
  • Use of stories for innovation – The use of storytelling in innovation and knowledge creation can encourage people to move away from linear thinking towards a more multi-dimensional view, to see new connections between things, and also to marry scientific logic with a more creative or intuitive approach.
  • Storytelling to build community – There is something about stories that brings people together and fosters a sense of community. Storytelling is non-hierarchical, it unlocks feelings and emotions as well as thought processes, and hence it helps to build relationships and trust.
  • Storytelling to enhance technology – People often find it difficult to communicate about technology. Users can have trouble articulating their needs and expectations, while experts can have difficulty ‘talking in plain English’. Wherever there is a gap in language and understanding, storytelling can provide a bridge, by communicating the real essence of what each party is trying to get across.
  • Storytelling for individual growth – Storytelling is a skill, and one that draws on a number of other key skills, mostly relating to interpersonal communication. The development of these skills is an important component of most knowledge management programmes.”