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
Xerox: How copiers actually get repaired 

    Now let me talk about a much more formal example, that led to an awful lot of re-thinking about how we looked at knowledge, and knowledge sharing, and knowledge capturing inside Xerox. And this was a story that actually changed my life, almost as much as that icon about “We participate and therefore we are” that I showed you earlier. 
   When I came to Xerox, people discovered that I had actually been to Orlando before. I used to come down here to work for the military, in terms of training. Training facility for the military. 

   And because I had done an awful lot of work in corporate training, in using very sophisticated computer to teach trouble shooting in the air force, they asked me to take on the task of: could I figure out a better way to draw up job performance aids for our tech reps,  25,000 tech reps, who troubleshoot our equipment around the world. … and could I also find a way to train these guys so that they didn’t spend $200 million a year sending them back to Leesburg to train. I didn’t consider this to be one of the most interesting jobs, but being a good corporate citizen, I finally said that I would take it on, but under one condition, and this would actually attack the problem as I would see fit. Anything that goes against the corporate culture. 
   And they said, “Sure, John, whatever you want.” 
   And I made, by accident, one of the smartest moves in my life. I went into the jungles and I hired an anthropologist. Actually I had to hire a bunch of anthropologists, to go into the concrete jungles of New York City and Denver and live, work and whatever else, with these tech reps for six solid months. After that, they were to come back and tell me what they had learnt. And from that, observations had more to do with the tacit practices, that they actually used. You can’t ask management what goes on. They don’t know anything. You can’t ask the people themselves, because they don’t that accurately what they know, any more than you guys know how you ride a bicycle. Your knowledge is broken if you believe my first story.  And so in some sense, in the engagement with these folks, we would have a first chance to have a sense of what are the tacit practices that these guys are using, to how might you actually work with them, and so on and so forth. 
   But after six months, Julian and crowd came back. Julian walked into my office and said, “John, you’re not going to be happy. Every paper you’ve ever written about troubleshooting is just plain wrong. You’ve developed these beautiful hierarchical isolation procedures, you have built a sequence of logical troubleshooting scenarios. These guys don’t work that way.”
   So I said, “Well, o.k., Julian, how the hell do they work?”
   Julian said: “Let me tell you how they work.” 
   You can probably tell where I am going, building off of what Steve Denning said yesterday. “What these guys do, especially when the going gets rough, and they have a machine that you can’t quite figure out, they call their buddies, and together, they are going to participate together to socially construct an understanding of that machine. How do they socially construct an understanding of that machine, they do kind of walk around the machine, literally, it turns out, and they start to spin a story. And so the story starts off trying to explain the obvious pieces of data, the accounts of some experiments, they get some more data, and then a new fragment of story, they drop that story in, that new fragment of a story, and they kind of walk around the machine, spinning this complex story, until finally they are able to explain every piece of data, every piece of this complex machine. When they have constructed the narrative that explains this, they have actually figured out the machine. And now they can fix the machine. And of course if that doesn’t fix it, then the story goes on."
   So trouble shooting turned out to be, not logically driven, but rather the construction of a narrative. Now what makes this particularly interesting is what do we do after this. Well afterwards, they get together, in a bar or in a coffee shop, when we’re telling this to Xerox executives, and around drinks, they start, well, what do they start doing? 
   You guessed it. They start telling and listening to each other’s stories. And in the process of telling the story, in the process of listening to the story, basically the story starts to get refined, and a social vetting process starts to happen. 
   And somebody says, “Well, you could have done it this way.” 
   Or “I don’t really believe that”. 
   So basically, in this social layer, the stories start to get refined. And in fact this just turned out to be accidental turned out to be the most interesting stories, Why? Because very tricky faults, with misleading symptoms, lead you down one path, and you get all the way down that path, and you call this “garden path troubleshooting”. Then you discover something very surprising, over here. That of course makes the story itself particularly interesting as well. It’s a garden path story. 
   So it turns out that there is a perfect match between what makes these types of story absolutely fascinating, and can be passed around, as to where the really interesting topics of knowledge are actually happening. So with those insights, we decided to use some incredibly complicated technology. We went out and we bought every tech rep a two-way radio. No computers. 
   And these two-way radios were always on, so every tech rep in that region in that city, was then in each other’s periphery, and because they were a community of practice, they could read each other, in the way that I mentioned earlier, so that they could tell when anyone was getting into trouble, and they could almost seamlessly move from the periphery to the center, in their virtual world of two way radio and help each other. So that now we had an extremely good medium for telling stories, building stories by design. 
   By the way, this also turned out to be very interesting: this was the way that we would do apprenticeship, because what would happen is that new people would come on and they could actually link and listen at the periphery of this whole knowledge network being constructed, and pick up all kinds of new skills, and confidence, know that they could call on other people for help. Boy, they’d know that they would need to get help, and so on and so forth.
   The biggest problem with getting the system going, by the way, and we’ll come back to it in a moment, has to do with trust. Because basically, this was a broadcast, I mean it was a a private channel. Nevertheless, these guys knew that the dear management could listen in. But when they knew that the management weren’t going to listen in, then they were very positive: they had open conversations, because if you actually listen on these channels, there is seamless transition between the social and the technical, and in a way that would actually freak out some managers. So to make this happen, building on the trust turned out to be awfully important.

Xerox’s Eureka

   So this all made us realize that the expert system that Xerox had wanted me to build, setting aside artificial intelligence computerized system, the expert systems are of course a social blind. Obviously, you need a community of practice. How could you tap that, how could you support that? And so on and so forth. This was the support. The trouble was that once the story was told, it would circulate in that region and be lodged in the community mind, in the community of practice here, but it wouldn’t pass on to anyone else unless it went out on to the ether. 
   This led us to design a system called Eureka which was basically the idea now, thinking a little more carefully about how do we build a knowledge base that we could actually ship around the world, to support the 25,000 tech reps around the world. 

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 
The views expressed on this website are those of the authors, and not necessarily those of any person or organization
Site optimized in 800x600: webmaster CR WEB CONSULTING
Best experienced with