Author: Bill Ives Posted: April 18, 2012 1034 views

IMG_6854“Sometime reality is too complex. Fiction gives it form.” Jean Luc Godard

Sitting on a Greek island, I am reminded of how historically, stories have played a key role in transferring knowledge; the epic poems and ancient parables are evidence of this ageless capability. Before text was invented, stories were the main form of knowledge recording and sharing, as the conditions for the preservation of ideas were mnemonic (Havelock, 1976). Stories are still easier to remember than prose and any good speaker uses them to this advantage.

Research into great leaders suggests that a leader who truly enables change is one who creates a story; a vision that significantly affects the thoughts, behaviors and feelings of a large number of people who then become followers (Gardner & Laskin, 1995). Stories provided the organizing framework for both the recorders and the receivers of knowledge.

With the advent of text and storage devices such as clay tablets and papyrus, other forms of documentation became possible and stories went underground in certain contexts such as business. But stories did not lose all their power to move people and the printing press made them scalable. For example, many historians have argued that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ was more instrumental in convincing the people of the northern United States of the evils of slavery than the more abstract appeals to morality by contemporary politicians. Stowe was referred to as the old lady who started the Civil War.

Within business however, although stories have remained important in informal knowledge transfer, they have not been fully recognized for their value and have not been used to achieve maximum benefit. I see signs of this changing. More business projects are starting to include the collection of stories as a part of their communication plans.

This is a good idea as while stories can be simple, they also require a broad bandwidth to convey their context and richness. Information systems traditionally focused on data. Now, with continuing increases in bandwidth and other advances, corporate stories could become more recognized as a major source of organizational learning able to be managed through technology.

Stories could be managed, evaluated, documented and made accessible to the right people to increase their effectiveness. A U.S. study found that a vast majority of employees felt they gained most of their work-related knowledge by chance from informal conversations, mostly stories, and not from procedure manuals or formal training (Wensley, 1998).

Stephen Denning (2001) is the most recognized business storyteller and he writes a complement to Goddard: “Storytelling doesn’t replace analytical thinking. It supplements it by enabling us to imagine new perspectives and new worlds, and is ideally suited to communicating change and stimulating innovation.”

Here are some references as not all have links.

Denning, S. (2001) The springboard: How storytelling ignites actions in knowledge-era organizations. Boston: Butterworth Heinemann.

Gardner, H., & Laskin, E. (1995) Leading minds: An anatomy of leadership. New York: Basic Books

Havelock, E., (1976) Origins of Western Literacy. Toronto: The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education Press

Roud, R. (1967) Goddard. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.

Wensley, A. (1998) The value of story telling. Knowledge and Process Management, 5, 1, 1-2.


About the author >

Bill Ives

Bill has served for thirty years in leadership positions helping firms improve employee performance and make effective business use of emerging technologies. He worked in such areas as learning, competency assessment, knowledge management, and more recently, social media, around such topics as sales, customer service, and technology adoption. Bill has supported US Fortune 500 companies in a variety of industries, along with a number of leading European firms. Currently, Bill is the SVP of Marketing at Darwin Ecosystem where he helped the firm win a number of industry awards and gain significant market recognition in its first year. He manages the Darwin blog and Twitter efforts among other tasks. He wears several other hats including writing for two other blogs: The OutStart Knowledge Solutions Blog and the AppGap. He also provides consulting to clients on effective uses of social media. Bill is a frequent speaker and author on Web topics, especially business uses of social media, both inside and outside the enterprise. Prior to his current roles, Bill was in a leadership role in knowledge management at Accenture (1996-2004) and led the Knowledge Management/Portals Client Practice (2001-2004). He was responsible for numerous knowledge management and portal strategy and implementation engagements. A number of these won industry awards for innovation and effective knowledge sharing. He also led several large learning efforts and served as executive sponsor for the firm’s Plumtree, Epicentric, and Lotus alliances. At Renaissance Strategy Group (1993-1996) Bill developed knowledge management, performance support systems, and multi-media learning systems. At both Accenture and Renaissance, he developed and documented the firm’s first knowledge management methodology. At Spectrum Interactive (1981-1993) Bill developed performance support systems, multimedia learning systems, and instructor-led training, as well as competency assessments, organizational designs, and evaluation methods for many Fortune 100 companies. From 1976 to 1981 Bill conducted post-doctoral research at Harvard University on the effects of media on cognition. He received a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from the University of Toronto, an Ed. M. in Human Development from Harvard University, and a B.A. in Sociology from Tufts University. Bill has published over 100 articles on business uses of the web, knowledge management, learning, and psychology and he has presented at over 100 sessions at professional conferences including, American Psychological Association, American Society for Training and Development, Braintrust, Enterprise 2.0, KM World, Enterprise Search Summit, and Webcom. Bill writes the blog, Portals and KM, since May 2004. There are over 2,500 subscribers. It is syndicated through several services including Lexis Nexis Kindle, Blogburst, and others. You can reach him at

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