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.J. Electronic storytelling 


Participant: I want to go back to your earlier account about offices as a place of social connection for people. Would you tell us what you think of the telecommuting trend? And what about e-mail, and its effect on people?

Larry Prusak: I almost got fired last week for speaking about this. (Laughter) I have enough money so I don’t care if they fire me. I had to give an interview on this. We all use e-mail. But telecommuting: this is an accountant’s dream. I was talking to John Seely Brown about it. And there’s a book in cognitive science and another book, a novel, with 

the same title, called Being There. The point is, if you’re not there, you’re nowhere. No one has ever gotten promoted through telecommuting. You don’t get anywhere with telecommuting. You’re out of loops. You’re lonely. In IBM which believes in this big-time – sometimes people say the initials I-B-M stand for “I’m by myself” (Laughter) – it’s a terrible way to work. It’s an atrocious idea. 

    Now I work at home too from time to time. You know, if it snows, or I have a lot of writing to do. I’m not talking about periodically staying at home and finishing a project. I’m talking about having no office to go to. Having no space that’s your own. Either being on the road all the time. Or with a laptop at a client site. Never talking to your co-workers. The organization learns nothing. You learn nothing. You’re a transactional base. It’s a stupid and terrible assumption. It’s part of the technological utopianism which is so thoroughly integrated with accounting methods. And it destroys once-great organizations.

    I said this to the press and the IBM management really got furious, because they believe in this stuff. And they do it for retention. We can’t get software writers unless we let them live in Missoula (Montana). But the firm doesn’t learn anything that way. You pay them on a transaction basis. And I can see that it must be tempting to do it, but nobody learns. You don’t learn from the great coders because you never meet them. 

    They don’t learn anything. They just do it. They don’t refresh their knowledge. So I think it’s awful. 

    E-mail is different. It’s not too different from writing. It’s a fancy way of writing letters. It’s like the telephone, it’s useful. It helps you communicate. It’s a useful thing. But telecommuting is really stupid. 

Participant: You tell stories through e-mail. 

Larry Prusak: I don’t believe that. I never hear stories through e-mail. I hear them through talking to people. I must get fifty or sixty e-mails a day. Most of them are insipid. They are quick. It’s because we’re all in a hurry and we get too many of them. We answer with five or six words. 

Participant: Our firm tried to figure out how to handle that about a year ago. And they addressed it. And they said that after two or three e-mails they just walk down the hall and talk to the person. 


Larry Prusak: Actually, if you’re not there, you’re nowhere. You know, I take that shuttle constantly from Boston to New York. There’s a shuttle plane. It starts at 6 a.m. and it ends at 10 p.m. I’ve been on all of them. You get to know the same people. “Hi, how are you?” They’re all tired, white, fat men mostly. 

    But one day, about a year and a half ago, I was waiting to get on that shuttle, and my cell phone rings, at 6 a.m. Very few people have the number, but my wife does. And it’s her, fairly ticked off, but the client called her, and said, “Cancel the meeting.” You know, the meeting in New York is cancelled. Somebody is ill. My wife is nice enough to call me and say, “You don’t have to get on that plane.” Great! It’s 6 a.m. I can go to work at 6 a.m. O.k. I don’t mind. Not being on a plane is a day in heaven to me. 

     But I decided to do something different. It was sort of early to go to the office. And I started to do something that I’ve wanted to do for years. I asked all these people where the hell they were going. I had a suit on, a tie, I was pretty harmless looking. I’d say, “Hi. How are you? I’m Larry Prusak. I with IBM. Where are you going?” 

     Some people knew who I am. 

    Others said, “What? IBM? Are you selling something?” 

    And I said, “No, I just want to know where you’re going.”

     About half the people are going to internal meetings. Now there are big lines and you get better answers because they’re tired. About half those people are going to internal meetings. Internal meetings. About half, by and large. And they’re from organizations that have all the technology they could buy.  So they have video-conferencing. They have it all. This is Fidelity, the big bio-tech companies, some of the big hospitals, the big universities, they have it. You name it, they buy it and they have it. How come they are going to meetings? 

    So I asked them. “How come you’re going to meetings? You have all this technology. How come you’re getting on this plane. It’s early, it’s expensive. It’s a pain in the butt. New York City gives you a headache. Two expensive taxi rides. Your blood pressure goes through the roof. You come home. You’re dirty, hot and tired. This is not a pleasurable experience. You have e-mail and all this videoconferencing technology. Why are you getting planes, spending money and time. Why are you doing all this?”
And it was interesting. Because they’d say something like, “Well, I just have to be there.”

    “But why?” I kept probing. “Why?”

    “Well,” they’d say, “if I’m not there something terrible will happen to me.”

      “What do you mean?” I’d say. “You’re a senior-ish person.”

    “No, no! I have to be at the meeting, because I have to see other people’s reaction.”

    The best answer I got was from someone who said, “You’re from New York, right? You ever play hide and seek, and all those tag games. And you remember one kid who was always ‘It’? Well, if you’re not at the meeting, then you’re going to be ‘It’!” (Laughter)

That was the best answer I got. The truth is that people will move heaven and earth and travel all over to be at the meeting, because they’re worried they’re going to be ‘It’.
You can talk about lack of trust and that’s some of it. But it’s also reading cues. Reading the signals. Reading emotions. Getting a cognitive sense of what’s going on. Getting a sense of the social dynamic. Which is not replicable through today’s technology. People say: what about the future. I don’t know about the future. You can tell stories about the future. But it sure isn’t true today. Those planes are still full. 
In fact, human beings still need to see each other. Terrible things happen when people are not together. 

Participant: I want to say in defense of distributed-ness, People tell stories in distributed environments, using e-mail or whatever. And bonds occur. And there are literally hundreds of thousands of people that play in virtual environments and they develop their own little societies. And when anthropologists study the situation to find out why they keep coming back, they discover that it’s because they share a story, and it’s because they share this kind of interest. I think they announced here that there’s some ListServe here of people that do know each other, and communicate.

Larry Prusak: I guess it depends on how you define words like “know” and “trust” and “activities”. I have this discussion with other people. It’s a judgment call in the end. But I don’t trust people, trust to the extent of really talking about things. I mean serious things, not just the GNP of Morocco or regression analysis, but subjects needing real trust. I’m not going to share this unless I know them. And I don’t know anyone without having met them. Some people say it’s generational. And maybe it is.

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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