Passport to the 21st Century
John Seely Brown, Steve Denning, 
Katalina Groh, Larry Prusak: 
Some of the world's leading thinkers
explore the role of storytelling in the world

 I Introduction to storytelling I John Seely Brown on science I Steve Denning on change I Katalina Groh on video
Larry Prusak on organization I Discussion I | Contact us | Bibliography on storytelling

Storytelling: Scientist's Perspective: John Seely Brown
The informal channels of an organization

    This leads us though to the fact that if you look at the organization, you might think about it as decomposed into two components, one having to do with what you might call the authorized part which are the formal business processes, and then the place where the work actually gets done, the social fabric which is actually where the emerging communities of practice actually live, where the work actually gets done. 

What IT has supported

   A couple of observations about this. In terms of management information systems, and those who try to build knowledge management systems out of MIS systems, the MIS system has always been pre-occupied with supporting the authorized work. Almost by definition, it has to go through a CIO, to get approved, to get authorized, and so we have a disproportionate amount of our money actually being spent, in terms of information technology, in terms of the authorized. 
   And in the past, there has been almost nothing supporting basically the social fabric per se. Now obviously with the emergence of the intranet, an ability to build your own virtual community, communities of interest, build your own web pages, and so on and so forth we are beginning for the first time to be able to have a technology that starts to support the social fabric as well You look at how much time you want to be supporting the authorized part of the organization versus supporting the social part of the organization..

The informal channels of communication

   Let me give you an example of the power of the social fabric. Most CEOs are having a terrible time figuring how to communicate messages to the troops. In Xerox, beaming a message around the world is usually done through cascading communications, it doesn’t work, it’s brain dead, but nevertheless it’s an easy way to do it. The CEO does a broadcast, sends a videotape out to anybody around the world, they all get together in a group, so that they can all look at the videotape. That turns out not to be the world’s greatest communications strategy. 
   In fact, one day our CEO was bemoaning with me the inability to reach people in a meaningful way, and I said: “Well, Paul, come on, I can send a message and touch every person in the Xerox world in 28 countries in less than 48 hours.”
   He said, “What?” 
   I said, “Absolutely, it’s trivial.”
   He said, “John, what are you talking about?”
   I said, “It’s very simple. Watch this juicy rumor that I just drop into the social fabric and the rumor will spread through the social fabric at blinding speed. But if you spread the message through the authorized system, just forget it.”
   But how do you actually get something that enables people to engage? This again is one of the reasons why the narrative turns out to be so powerful. We all know how fast the rumors spread. Now why is it that we can’t tap the mechanisms that spread rumors, for spreading knowledge. Very interesting question. 

Social fabric

   Social fabric. It can be designed, or let me say at least that you can think about designing some of the context, to facilitate learning, I’ll take you through a couple of examples about learning inside the organization, inside the organizational mind.

The queue at the copying machine

   Here’s one which almost everybody overlooks, it has an awful lot to do with how you go about disseminating new technology either in a corporation or a community or a region. Most people don’t think about it, but take for example, the line of people standing behind a copier, a brand new copier. It turns out that as people queue up to find out how to use the brand new copier, they suddenly act to become a support structure, so those who are already in the know, become masters to these people in the queue who become apprentices, standing in line, enables you to learn new tricks in here, or you can pass on tricks in here, or here. 
    Actually, this whole notion of queuing turns out to be a very powerful learning mechanism. This really hit us because when we put these machines on the network, we said: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could read whether or not the copier is busy, so that you never go to the copier. The trouble is that this means that there were never any lines, and as soon as there were no lines, nobody was capable any longer of showing how to use this thing. 

Learning to use farecards in Washington DC

In fact some of you who have been to Washington DC may know that when we introduced the subway system, the electronic tickets, in a curious way, no matter how well that system was designed, and I was on the periphery of that design, it was still going to be impossible to learn how to use the system, because design has to do with: can you read that design in a social mind, in a community mind. What happened for the first month, is that they placed experts, paid kids who knew how to use these machines, to sit by the every one of the ticket machines. And what these kids did is that they showed other people how to do it. And then pretty soon, people began to understand how to do it. And then they started spreading that kind of knowledge. It was a beautiful example of jumpstarting, bootstrapping the community mind. Small number of people for one month. It made all the difference in the world how that technology got assimilated within the community of travelers inside Washington DC. Same kind of thing here. 

Books and videos on storytelling 
*** In Good Company : How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work
by Don Cohen, Laurence Prusak (February 2001) Harvard Business School Press
*** The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown, Paul Duguid
(February 2000) Harvard Business School Press
*** The Springboard : How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations
by Stephen Denning (October 2000) Butterworth-Heinemann 
*** The Art of Possibility, a video with Ben and Ros Zander : Groh Publications (February 2001)
Copyright © 2001 John Seely Brown 
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