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 to ignite change: Steve Denning
A surprising story to be telling

   And the story that I am going to tell you is a story that I am surprised to be telling you today. 
   That’s because five years ago, I knew that knowledge was reliable and solid and objective and abstract and analytic. 
   And I knew that something like storytelling was nebulous and ephemeral and subjective and indirect. 
   And I knew that all of these qualities of knowledge – solid, objective, abstract, analytic – were good. 
   And I knew that all of the qualities of storytelling – nebulous and ephemeral and subjective and indirect – were very bad. 
  What I discovered over the next couple of years was that it ain’t necessarily so. 
   Everything that I knew to be true turned out to be utterly, utterly false.

How the Story Began

   My story in knowledge began in February 1996. I had been a manager in the World Bank for several decades. I had had held some fairly significant positions. In the early 1990s, I was the director of the Southern Africa Department. In the mid-90s, I became Director of Africa Region, overseeing around a third of the World Bank operations. 
   And then, as these things happen in large organizations, the scene unexpectedly changed in the management and things were not looking too bright for me in the World Bank. So I went to the senior management and asked them whether they had anything in mind for me. And they said, “Not really.” I asked them whether they had really nothing at all for me. And they said finally: “Why don’t you go and look into information.”
   Well, information in the World Bank in February 1996 had about the same status in the organization as the garage or the cafeteria. So this was not exactly a promotion that was being offered to me. Essentially, I was being sent to Siberia. But I was kind of interested in information and computers, and so I said: “O.k., I’ll go and look at information.” 
So I went around the organization and I looked at what was going on in the field of information. And I saw a scene that is familiar to anyone working in a large organization.
We were drowning in information. We were spending a ton of money on it and getting very little in the way of benefits.
   And we obviously had to fix this up and we were equally obviously going to save a lot of money when we did that.
   But something else started to become clear to me as I thought about the situation. Even if we fixed up the situation in information, we would still be a rather old-fashioned lending organization. And our future as a lending organization wasn’t looking too bright. Many years ago, we had had a virtual monopoly in lending to the less developed countries. Now the scene had changed. Now a whole set of private banks had emerged that were lending far more than the World Bank could ever lend. And they were doing it faster and cheaper and with less conditionality than the World Bank. There were even world-wide campaigns to close the World Bank down. There was a political slogan chanted by protesters, “Fifty years is enough!”. In fact, our future as a lending organization was not looking too bright. .

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 John Seely Brown 
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