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: Organizational Perspective: Larry Prusak
Where are all those people flying to?

    I’ll tell you a very brief story before I have to get off the stage here. About a year ago, 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, 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 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. Why are you doing 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.”
    What they really meant, and what the real truth is, that human beings need to see each other. Terrible things happen when people are not together. And I think that’s accurate. 

Distorting knowledge: the Challenger disaster

    If you want to read a very good book on this, It’s called The Challenge of  Disaster, by Diane Vaughan. She’s a professor at BC. It’s a long book. But it’s the best book I ever read on knowledge distortion, about how NASA had such a culture that knowledge got distorted due to the internal norms, that NASA had developed, and therefore we have a disaster. It’s not so much singling out NASA. You could say the same thing about plenty of other organizations, but the culture distorted knowledge. social norms. And that’s why people go to meetings. They like showing up. 

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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