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 in Organizations: Larry Prusak
II.A. Stories about other people

   If I were to put a microphone in every coffee station, every doorway, every stairwell, in the Global 1000 firms and we collected all the stories, over a month, and categorized them, what would these stories be about?

     First, they would be about co-workers, other people who work in the organization. There was actually something done like this a few years back, in a research firm. Why do people tell stories about their co-workers? We can exclude malignant gossip. That’s a fairly small category. Not many people tell a story to harm somebody, telling a salacious story about someone’s behavior. That’s not done too much. There are people who do that, mischievous people, but it’s not that often. 

      What the community of researchers found was that 

when people tell stories about other people, the motivations are usually reliability, trust and knowledge. People want to know: is this person reliable? If they say “x”, will x occur? If they say that they’ll do something, will they do it? Reliability. When you tell stories about another person, it tells you: “Gee, that guy promised this” or “she did that”. And that’s some of the great storytelling content: reliability. 

    And reliability is a good first cousin, if not a sibling, to trust. There have been eighteen books published on this subject in the last three years. Serious books. Trust is really important. Nothing happens without trust. Nothing of value will happen without it, because without trust, if you have to negotiate and contract and monitor everything, so that no content occurs, no substance gets done. You just constantly have your nose up someone else’s you know what. (Laughter) Trust is key. And when people tell stories about other people, they’re often about this: can you trust this person? So reliability is a function of trust.

    And there’s a third category. When people talk about people, it is sometimes called gossip. Jim March at Stanford wrote a great piece about this: gossip is just news about people that you need to know. How else would you know if someone is trustworthy, knowledgeable or reliable? If you don’t know the person, you have to tell stories about them. There’s no other way to do it. If someone says, “So and so is trustworthy”, either I’ll trust the person who tells me that, and that’s a proxy, one step away, but also, very often, they’ll tell me a story about this person. “This person said they’d do this, and they did that.” You could say that they’re gossiping, but you could also say that they’re informing others of vital news. They’re spreading information about the person’s expertise, reliability and trustworthiness. This is significant stuff. 

    So when you see people chatting with one another, and you overhear them talking about some other person, they’re really exchanging news, news about people’s reliability. This is important especially as organizations become more virtual, more volatile, and there’s less space, and they don’t meet so often. People work in odd places. A lot of firms have bought a lot of nonsense about virtuality. They say you don’t need space, or you don’t need places to meet. I mean, this is mainly junk, sold by vendors to convince but it makes the sale. 

    · If you don’t have physical space and you never meet people, how are you going to know if they’re reliable? 

· If you put them on a team, how would you know if they would perform? 
· How would you know whether you would want them on a team? 
· How do you know how to work with them without telling a story? Or without hearing stories about them? 
    People will say: “Well, that’s very unscientific.”  But what’s the alternative? Are there any? How would you know about a person? There aren’t any alternatives: you have to get it through a story. 

     Let me give you an example. There’s Steve Denning here, and there’s another guy who works for me, Dave Snowden. They do storytelling workshops together. I had to convince each of them that the other person was trustworthy. (Laughter). And there’s a good reason for that. You don’t want to go off, half way round the world, doing a seminar with another person, unless you trust them. They’d heard of each other’s reputation, and they trusted me enough, so it worked out. But it’s still one step away. 

    And you might say, “What, are you telling stories?” 

    And yes, it’s true. You tell stories about the other person. “They showed up. They did this. They didn’t hog all the time. They were careful on this and that.”

    What are the alternatives to telling stories? There aren’t any. You think a system can do that? Can the human resource department do that? Not a chance. There’s nothing else but stories. So that’s an important category. Stories about people. You can call it gossip. But again, it’s almost never, or very rarely, malicious. It’s news. Ezra Pound said, “Poetry is news that stays news.” And I think sometimes that gossip and rumors are news that stay news. It seems to have a great enduring factor.

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 Larry Prusak 
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