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
Why not share our knowledge?

   Then I started to have a different thought. I said to myself: “Why don’t we share our knowledge?” Over the previous fifty years, we had acquired immense expertise as to what worked and what didn’t work in the field of development. We had all this know-how on how to make development happen in countries around the world. But it was very hard to get access to this expertise and know-how. It was very hard to find it. If you were inside the organization and you knew somebody who had the expertise, and could talk to them, you were o.k. But if you didn’t know someone, you were in trouble. And if you were outside the organization, it was practically impossible to get access to the World Bank’s expertise unless you were engaged in a lending operation. 

So there were only very few people around the world who were actually benefiting from the World Bank’s immense expertise. 

The lending organization

   But I started to ask myself: why don’t we share our knowledge more widely? Technology was changing and it was now becoming possible for us, if we so chose, to share our knowledge with the whole world. It was becoming possible for us to become a knowledge sharing organization, and in the process, we could be a pretty exciting organization with a bright future. But when I explained this idea to some of my colleagues, their reply was quite blunt. They said, “Steve, this is the World BANK! We are a lending organization, always have been. Lending is what keeps the organization going. It’s what pays your salary. Keep your eye on the ball! Knowledge might be interesting, but this is basically a lending organization.” 


    I could see that didn’t work, and I started to ask myself how was I going to persuade this organization to change. I thought about what the consultants did and I knew they used charts and slides with boxes and arrows. And so I started showing slides like this slide from Professor Nonaka’s wonderful book on The Knowledge Creating Organization. It shows the knowledge spiral, going from the process of socialization, to externalization, to combination and so on. And when I showed this chart inside the World Bank, there was an expression on people’s faces that showed that the chart was not at all having the effect that I had intended.
    Well, I thought, let’s try to reason with these people. Surely, that should work. The World Bank is very rational cerebral kind of organization. Let’s try rational argument. So I would try things like this definition of knowledge management from the wonderful website,  “Knowledge management caters to critical issues of organizational survival, adaptation and competence in the face of increasingly discontinuous change.” This is a perfectly wonderful definition, except for one small problem. It takes you about two years of study to understand it, and understand why it is such a wonderful definition. As a tool for communicating what knowledge management is about, it was totally useless in our organization.

Dialogue is impractical
   Dialogue works. If I can sit down with you for a week, and understand what your problems are, and have a chance to explain how knowledge management could contribute to solving your problems, then I can make progress. But the problem is that I have ten thousand people to persuade. And I don’t have ten thousand weeks to persuade them. I have to move a lot faster. I need results now. And so dialogue works, but it is not practical. It is too slow to persuade a large organization undertake a basic transformation.

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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