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. Diversity in storytelling: 
Gender, ethnicity, generation


Participant: Do you find in your research or in your own personal experience differences in the workplace between the way women and men tell stories? (Laughter) 

Another participant: That’s a minefield. (Laughter)

Larry Prusak: Men and women? No, I don’t think so. I think that the differences between men and women in terms of narrative have been over-stated and exaggerated. I don’t think there’s a helluva lot of difference in that area. 


Participant: Between different cultural and ethnic groups? 

Larry Prusak: I think that’s a good question. I grew up in a rich ethnic stew in Brooklyn New York. I mean, you couldn’t find a richer ethnic stew. Maybe parts of Chicago would equal that. Or Los Angeles, I guess too. And the people I grew up with were Jews, Italians and blacks. These were the three groups I really raised with. And these groups loved telling stories. These are verbal cultures. And the groups I were one neighborhood away. The Irish I would throw them in too. They were people who liked telling stories. 

   Now some of that is class. These were all working class people. And they told stories. And they all believed in telling stories. And they sometimes told long involved tales of family intrigue. Those four groups would tell stories about discrimination, about how we got screwed, and so forth. 

    I remember one summer, getting a job at a very different place, an ad agency in New York City. It was run by different types of people who didn’t tell stories. It seemed very different. Maybe they told them at Harvard Club over a few martinis. But they sure didn’t tell stories at work. And you could really feel the difference in cultures. That may be changing. I think America is changing that way. But it’s a very valid issue. 


Participant: Or between the way different generations tell stories?

Larry Prusak: Generational differences? No. I don’t so, I think we are wired this way. I think that this is what human beings are like. There are certain changes here and there, a little movement, but people learn and live through stories and metaphors. And connections. And that’s who we are. Men. Women. Dogs. Cats. Human beings tell stories. I think the strongest of the three categories would be ethnicity, some sort of cultural bearings that you pick up when you’re younger.


   What’s really homogenizing us is television. I didn’t watch much TV when I was growing up, because there wasn’t much TV then.. I think TV homogenizes the way that people speak about their activities. People make cultural references to TV shows. I find this repellent frankly. I can’t stand it. Bob Putnam said that 20% of the loss of social capital in America is attributable to the growth of television. He actually tries to model the numbers. And I think he’s right. So I think that’s probably a bigger influence than these other factors. Homogenization. When I was growing up, these ethnic groups had very specific ways of telling stories, very different modes. They are all big verbal cultures. 

Participant: Larry, we tell stories many times based upon perceptions that we have. If you don’t mind, can you relate the story of the Brooklyn branch of the bank?


Larry Prusak: It’s a long story but an interesting one. In the late 1960s, I attended Columbia University for a while. Another guy and I were pretty scholarly. Columbia was up in flames. There were troubles. Anti-war stuff. And we would hide together in libraries. We became very friendly. And this guy rose to very high office in one of the big banks in New York. 

   And about once a year, we’d have dinner together. One time, we were talking and he asked me, “What are you doing research on?” 

  I said, “Knowledge and organizations.”

  And he said to me, “You know, we have all the knowledge that we need. We just spent $84 million on a new PC network for the branches of the bank. 
Now think about that statement: “We have all the knowledge that we need.” Just by putting in place a machine in each branch?

   So I said: “You may have all the knowledge you need, and these machines may aid it, but I’ll bet that’s wrong.” 

  And we started discussing it and I said: “Why don’t we just try to find an answer to this? Let’s try to prove this.” 

   So we made a bet. This guy is another Brooklyn guy. He likes to bet. (Laughter) I said: “Let’s go to a branch and find out why the branch performs well versus other banks in the neighborhood, and see what the role of the technology in a high performing branch.” 

   He was responsible for branch banking, and he had a big map of New York City and the various branches were rated, “A” or “B” or “C” or “D” versus other banks. Now banks sell the same stuff. If you’re a branch bank, it’s hard to differentiate yourself from other branch banks. If you think about it, what the hell is the difference. You sell CDs, mortgages, ATM machines. There isn’t a lot of difference. (Laughter) But the branches of banks perform differently. It can be based on all sorts of reasons. So we found a branch, right in the middle of Brooklyn, that performed at the “A” level. It was a branch on a crossroads where there were three other banks, competing banks. And why would this branch be doing so well? 

   So we said, “Let’s visit this bank.” We both dressed down a bit and we drove to central Brooklyn. And we go in to visit this bank. This is a neighborhood that both of us knew as kids and we hadn’t been there in a long while. And the neighborhood had shifted, as happens in large cities. It had changed from working class, Jewish, Italian and Irish to two dominant groups. This neighborhood comprised now Hasidic Jews and Rastifarians. (Laughter) I don’t know why they had chosen to live together, but there they were. (Laughter)

   So we go into this branch bank which is doing very well. And who’s running it? It’s Mr. Kim, a Korean. (Laughter) Only in New York. I love the city. (Laughter) So my friend, Joel, introduced himself to Mr. Kim. And of course, no one had ever seen an executive of the bank at this branch. This is no surprise. Mr. Kim almost fainted. “You mean, what?” Joel explained that this was an off-the-record visit. I mean, no one ever sees executives. You can work in a company and never see executives. It’s certainly true for most companies. You never meet anyone. So Mr. Kim was really shocked but we told him it was off-the-record and we calmed him down and we congratulated him. My friend said, “You’ve done a great job! You’re an “A” performer, you’ve won bonuses, and all this stuff. And we’re just here to see how you do so well.”

    And Mr. Kim was really nervous, and wouldn’t really talk much. But after a while, he told us what he did. He realized that what his branch offered wasn’t wildly different from any other bank offered. He said, “I wanted to understand these groups’ attitudes to money and to disposable income and to work. What really mattered to them when they thought in their hearts about cash, about disposable income. They’re not rich people at all. What did they care about? Mortgages? College loans? Or what? So I learned the languages.” 

    He learned Creole and Yiddish. Now this is not an easy trick for a Korean, or even an easy trick for any of us. (Laughter) He learned enough and he became friendly with people, and he’d go to the Bar Mitzvahs. He’d go to whatever Rastifarians do. He’d be there. (Laughter) 

    He’d get to know these people. But he was very friendly and he wanted to learn what they were like as people, as a culture. And he did it. He learned it. He’d go to their homes. He found that they bought brick homes. They didn’t send their kids to college. They did this. They did that. They invested in short term securities. And of course, he tailored the bank’s offerings, that mapped the way they felt about money. And of course, you’d get a differential. He pointed to the bank across the street, a Citicorp branch, which was constantly stressing short term mortgages. Five and ten year mortgages. 

    “These people,” he said, “had no interest in that whatsoever. They couldn’t afford it. Didn’t they know?” He was kind of shocked. “If they would just talk to these people, they’d find that they wanted thirty year mortgages.” But you had to know the people to find this out. You could do market research, but it still wouldn’t show you. It was just meeting and talking with them. And these are hard-working working-class people, family people. Different attitudes perhaps, but fundamentally good people.

   So we were really impressed. And he also did something else. He was constantly in e-mail communication with the Korean branch managers of other banks. Korean-ness was a real tie. He’d talk to the other branch managers, even though they were competing banks. There was a very strong tie between them. 

   So finally I had to say, “What about the PC network?” (Laughter) Joel and I had this bet. It was a full dinner at any restaurant in New York for us and our spouses. No holds barred. No limitations. I had to make him pay. 

    So Mr. Kim said, “Of course, we use the PC. We have to report stuff. You get information. No question about it.”

   So I asked more pointedly, “Does the PC network account for, or contribute to your understanding of, how you run this branch?” 

    And he thought for a moment, as he was a very thoughtful guy, and he said finally, “Not at all.” (Laughter) 

   So Joel took my wife and me to a dinner at Lutece, and we spent as much money and drank as much wine as we could consume. (Laughter)

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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