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.B. Stories about the work itself

    The second thing that people talk about is stories about about the work itself, about the nature of the work. How to do it better? How to do it at all? 

     Dave Snowden, who works with me and Steve, has a wonderful tale, and it’s accurate too, about the Thames Water Authority, a consulting project with them. This organization does the water and the pipes for the Thames Valley and they had re-engineered the company. 

    And re-engineering is a terrible thing. It was a wave that swept over various parts of the world, but it was based on very faulty assumptions, and almost ruined a number of organizations. It was one of those great tsunamis that attack organizations and often kill them. And  re-engineering was one of them. It was the latest 

manifestation of this efficiency phases that drive people and organizations into the dirt.

    And the Thames Water Authority had records, beautiful hand-written records of people’s home where they had lived along the river, and the water pipes that brought the water into their houses. The pipes were from the 19th century, and under re-engineering, the consultants said, “That’s 19th century stuff. We don’t need that. Put it all on a system.” So they took these beautiful 19th century handwritten books and destroyed them all. And they put them on a system that didn’t work. 

    So when people went to someone’s home, they couldn’t access the pipes, and they had to re-invent the handwritten records. The people had to meet and they had to try to find people who remembered where the pipes went. It was very tactile, tacit, contextual knowledge. Speak to plumbers. Houses are different. Pipes are different. Anyone who knows work like that knows what I’m talking about. They had to reinvent the whole thing. And they’d meet and have coffee, every morning. And they’d say: “Which house are you going to? Ah. I think John used to know about that one.  Give him a call.” John would say, “Oh yes, when you do this, it’s copper and it leads into this.” These are stories about the work itself.

    There’s a very famous book by Julian Orr called Talking About Machines” (Cornell University Press, 1990). I’m sure some of you have read this book. It’s a wonderful book on just what we’re talking about, on how the Xerox Company in all its rationalist mode, and IBM would do exactly the same thing, or any other firm, put out enormous documentation on fixing these big high-tech copiers. And you could imagine: huge volumes of procedures and standards and books. And it turns out the repairmen just talk to each other. When they have a problem, they just call each other. When they gave them mobile phones, that made it even easier. It works. 

· First, because it’s much easier to understand another person talking a subject, than it is to read any documentation. 
  Secondly, because you don’t know what problems you’re going to find until you find them.
 · And thirdly, because you want the interaction. “Did you try this? That didn’t work. Well how about this? Maybe you should try that.” 
You do verbal decision trees in the form of stories. And that’s exactly how most people help each other at work. They tell stories about the work.

    Julian Orr’s book describes this. It’s an ethnographic study of exactly how this works, how people talk about it. It’s also discussed in John Seely Brown’s book, The Social Life of Information. It’s a well-known study and John will talk about it later.


   So these are stories about the work itself. Alan Webber, the founder of Fast Company, once wrote an article with the title, “Stop Talking and Get Back to Work”. It is one of the dumbest things ever said in American business. And there’s a lot of competition. (Laughter) There are very low barriers to entry.

   There’s a former CEO of IBM, John Akers, who got that job through social capital, not through any expertise. In fact, a lot of people get their jobs through social capital, politicians particularly. When IBM was in deep distress, really in trouble, he went up and spoke in Canada, and he blamed some of the workers for hanging around the water coolers, instead of focusing on their jobs. Some of you may remember this. That was about the stupidest thing he could have said. 

    First, it’s immoral: I mean, someone taking that sort of salary, and then blaming the workers for the fault of the firm, it’s immoral. 

    But secondly, even more stupid is: what do you think people are going to do when a firm’s in distress? They’re going to talk to each other. They’re going to try to tell stories. They’re going to try to dig the firm out of whatever problems it’s gotten into. They’ll try to come up at least with local solutions. To help their offices as best they can. To help their branches. To help their division. The very worst thing you could tell people is: don’t talk to your fellow workers, when you have grave problems like that.

   And what we’re really talking about here is a different model of how an organization works. We’re talking about a very non-mechanistic non-rationalist model, a model that is organic and self-adjusting, where people talk to each other, and things are not as crisp, not as clear, not as rational, not as scientific as they appear in the mechanistic models. They’re very little of those things. Organizations still have a lot of people in them. And that’s what the people do: they talk to each other about work, mostly in the form of stories. There are many other studies of stories, but that’s what they do, among other things. 


Participant: Did this have any beginning in class-room situations where young children were not supposed to talk? And then I wondered, does this experience have something to do with educational models opening up, with learning centers, and the like? 

Larry Prusak:  I thought that was one of the great things. You know, sometimes as you get older, you get pessimistic or old-fartdom creeps up on you, (Laughter) like myself, my friends, but I talk to kids and their classrooms are a thousand times better than mine. Maybe two thousand times. The kids walk around and talk to each other. They certainly learned more. And I grew up, probably as many of you did, in schools where you were sitting there and you couldn’t say a word. I was a chatty, inquisitive kid and it was murder for me. I hated it. It was a miserable experience for someone like me, and for many of my friends, who were also not sports-obsessed: they were chatty inquisitive kids.

    And so you’re absolutely right. Children are naturally chatty and inquisitive. Sure, every now and then you have to say: “Hey, be quiet and listen.” But basically, it’s crazy to try to repress them for seven or eight hours a day. 

Participant: Maybe John Akers, the IBM executive, grew up in that model.

Larry Prusak: Yes, he was a navy guy. (Laughter) The old navy! (Laughter) These are strait-laced people who think you should just listen. The training models in most firms are still based on this. It’s the Monty Python theory of learning: you open up someone’s head, pour in some knowledge. (Laughter)

Participant: And yet Larry, it’s interesting, because if we think about how we first learn, we realize that we first learn through stories. So keeping going how we first learn, through those initial stories that we hear, the narratives that we hear from our parents, our friends, and so forth, that first imprint stays with us with us throughout life, as research shows. 

Larry Prusak: Absolutely.

Another participant: It’s not just narrative. It also comes from looking. 

Larry Prusak: Yes, it’s storytelling and adaptation and looking. All of those things are much more ecological. They’re much more organic than the models we use for what we call “training” or the older teaching methods. It’s all changed for the better. If anything has changed for the better in this country, it’s childhood education. People always say: “Well, kids don’t learn as much.” And maybe that’s so. I don’t want to enter into that. But it’s certainly far more pleasant. And it’s less neurotic when you go to grade schools today than it was in the 40s and 50s. 

Another participant: It’s still bad.

Larry Prusak: Maybe you’re right. Now that my kids have gone, I don’t look into it much any more. But the kids actually like going to school. I never liked going to school. I don’t know anyone who liked going to school. These were public schools. 


Participant: Some of what you are describing seems to be conversation or dialogue. What is the difference between dialogue, conversation and story. 

Larry Prusak: Well, again, there’s a lot of ways you could answer that.

Participant: Any way you choose. (Laughter

Larry Prusak: For our purposes here – and you could ask the other speakers that – but for my purposes, I don’t see that there is much of a difference. But there’s certainly some strong academic literature on discourse analysis. There are people who have examined ways of looking at conversations – sociologists, and ethnographic researchers, and there’s a whole methodology. There are a lot of ways to understand what goes on between two people, or three people, or a group. For example, by analyzing and looking at how they speak. Erving Goffman wrote about this: Behavior in Public Places : Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings . Also Harold Garfinkel (Studies in Ethnomethodology, 1987 ). It’s very academic writing, but it’s interesting. Then there is dialogue analysis. There is discourse analysis. For our purposes, we’re just saying: loosen the screws. Loosen the couplings. Let people talk to each other, and they’ll learn a lot about what goes on in your organization..

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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