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
The Pakistan story

     One of those occasions was the Fall of 1998. You may recall that this was a time when the entire financial world seemed to be coming apart at the seams. 
   Russia had just defaulted. 
   Japan was in recession. 
   The East Asian miracle had crumbled in ruins. 
    Brazil was teetering on the brink. 
    Europe was struggling with the euro. 
    The currency and stock markets of the world were gyrating wildly. 
    The whole world was in a huge financial mess. People, including financial experts, started to have a nightmare vision of the financial world actually unraveling. It started to appear possible that the whole financial house of cards might suddenly fall down.
   But the traditionalists inside the World Bank were beginning to think a different kind of thought.

 They were beginning to think: “In the midst of a financial crisis, it’s obvious that the world needs a lending organization, like the World Bank. That’s what we know how to do. So why were we wasting our time on knowledge? Why don’t we get back to focusing, as we have always done, on being a bank and help solve the financial crisis?”
   And so they called a big meeting in September 1998, and I was asked to make a presentation to the president and the senior management of the World Bank on “the status of the knowledge management program.” In a sense, what they were asking me to do was: “Define knowledge management or die!” And I knew that if I did define it, I would die. So I didn’t define it. I did something else instead.

Pakistan Highways
   “Let me tell you, “I said, “about something happened just a few weeks ago to a World Bank team in Pakistan.

   “Just a few weeks ago, on August 20, the government of Pakistan asked our field office in Pakistan for help in the highway sector. They were experiencing widespread pavement failure. The highways were falling apart. They felt they could not afford to maintain them. They wanted to try a different technology, a technology that our organization has not supported or recommended in the past. And they wanted our advice within a few days. 
“I think it's fair to say that in the past we would not have been able to respond to this kind of question within this time frame. We would have either said we couldn’t help, or said to them that this technology was not one that we recommend or we might have proposed to send a team to Pakistan. The team would look around, write a report, review the report, redraft the report, send the report to the government, and eventually, perhaps three, six, nine months later, provide a response. But by then, it's too late. By then, things have moved on in Pakistan.
   What actually happened was something quite different. The task team leader in our field office in Pakistan sent an e-mail and contacted the community of highway experts inside and outside the organization (a community that has been put together over time) and asked for help within forty-eight hours. 
   And he got it. The same day the task manager in the highway sector in Jordan replied that, as it happened, Jordan was using this technology with very promising results.  The same day, a highway expert in our Argentina office replied and said that he was writing a book on the subject and was able to give the genealogy of the technology over several decades and continents. And shortly after that, the head of the highways authority in South Africa -- an outside partner who is a member of the community – chipped in with South Africa's experience with something like the same technology. And New Zealand provided some guidelines that it had developed for the use of the technology.
   And so the task manager in Pakistan was able to go back to the Pakistan government and say: this is the best that we as an organization can put together on this subject, and then the dialogue can start as to how to adapt that experience elsewhere to Pakistan's situation.
   “And now that we have realized that we as an organization know something about a subject we didn't realize we knew anything about, now we can incorporate what we have learnt in our knowledge base so that any staff in the organization anywhere at any time can tap into it. And the vision is that we can make this available externally through the World Wide Web, so that anyone in the world will be able to log on and get answers to questions like this on which we have some know-how, as well as on any of the other myriad subjects on which we have managed to assemble some expertise.”

The role of community

    “And what’s enabling this to happen is not just the technology that’s weaving these three hundred people together in a seamless electronic web, but the fact that these people form a community. The fact that they know each other. Because when the task team leader in Pakistan asks for advice, essentially he’s saying, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to what might be a central question in my sector, and I am paid to know the answers to central questions in my sector. And I work in an organization that is downsizing and looking around for employees who don’t know the answers to central questions in their sector.’ And so he doesn’t ask the question, unless he knows it’s safe. And the only reason he knows it is safe is that the knows the recipients of the email because they form a kind of highways community, and in this community, he knows that it is o.k. to ask questions and admit that you don’t know, and people don’t find fault with that. They don’t say, ‘You ask questions, so you’re a problem: we want you out of the organization.’ Instead, they try to help you find the answer.”
The impact of the story

   So that story enabled me to connect with the World Bank senior management and communicate the idea of knowledge management to the World Bank. And they started to think: “Well, that’s remarkable how quickly we could respond to that kind of situation in that out-of-the-way part of the world. Imagine if we had that kind of capability, not just in the highways community, but all across the organization. Imagine if the whole World Bank functioned like this.” And in effect, they said, “Let’s do it! Let’s become an agile  knowledge sharing organization.” And so the outcome of the meeting was not, as some had expected, a court martial looking into why there were so many flaws and blemishes in the implementation of this massive effort at transformation. Instead, the meeting led to a whole new surge of momentum behind knowledge sharing to make that something that was uniform across the whole organization. And so I found that storytelling was not ephemeral and nebulous and worthless. Instead I found that it was an extremely powerful tool to get major change in this large change-resistant organization.

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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