By BHARAT AVALANI
This is the time of the year when most businesses will report their achievements against targets set. Most of it will be in numbers. However, valuable stories behind the numbers are often not captured or shared.
In 2004, a study of 240 organisations in the United States (US) found that the greatest impact of employee turnover was lost knowledge, and not profitability!
Even in a country where knowledge management practices abound, lost knowledge had negatively affected a staggering 78 per cent of these organisations.
Using stories is one of the more powerful knowledge management practices. Stories transform tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, and are great vehicles to share that knowledge.
Tacit knowledge is knowledge embedded in the human mind through experience. Personal wisdom and experience which are context-specific are difficult to extract and codify. Tacit knowledge includes such wisdom and other insights.
Explicit knowledge on the other hand, is codified and digitised in books, documents, reports, memos, etc. It is knowledge that is easily identified, articulated, shared and employed.
In an interview a few years ago, a senior manager from Nasa confessed, “If we want to go to the moon again, we’ll be starting from scratch because all of that knowledge has disappeared.” Shocking, but true. No wonder Nasa now runs one of the more evolved knowledge management practices in the world.
Today, Nasa’s Academy of Programme and Project Leadership (APPL) uses storytelling as a primary vehicle for transferring project management expertise.
This is done using a series of story-based knowledge-sharing meetings that are supplemented by ASK, a bimonthly online magazine. ASK is dedicated to stories about project management at Nasa.
Here is a beautiful example of the benefit of storytelling about knowledge management at Nasa taken from David DeLong’s seminal work: Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Ageing Workforce.
The Nasa story
One example of how storytelling can effectively pass on knowledge that influences decision making was reflected in the experience of Roy Malone, head of logistics services at Nasa’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
Shortly before attending an APPL forum for master project managers, Malone was told his budget had been cut by 12 per cent. He spent a month trying to find other ways to deal with the USD1.1mil budget cut, but in the end Malone knew this meant he would have to lay off people.
During the masters’ forum, Malone heard a story told by Judy Stokley, a programme director in the US Air Force, who described how she had handled a similarly painful downsizing challenge.
The logistics manager returned to Marshall inspired by the storyteller’s ‘humanitarian’ approach, and he proceeded to adapt a number of the actions she used to his own situation.
For example, he began working with his key managers to find money from other sources to reduce the number of layoffs.
Malone also told employees about the cuts the department was facing, giving those who would be let go a three-month warning.
Finally, he held a series of open meetings with employees to let them vent their anger at the cuts and to educate them as best he could about the centre’s financial situation.
In the end, Malone attributed the lessons he absorbed from the Air Force director’s story to help minimise the impact of the layoffs he had to implement.
The art of storytelling
Storytelling is something almost everyone in an organisation indulges in, but mostly unconsciously. It is the way people make sense of the world around them and make meaning out of their experiences.
It is through the stories that we tell that we share knowledge every day. Stories have the ability to communicate knowledge that can’t be represented as rules or best practices.
The only question is how to use stories consciously and in a concerted manner to capture and transfer knowledge.
Here is what you can do to elicit stories.
Ask questions such as: “What are the occasions when you miss his or her presence the most?” or “What kind of problems do you know he or she will have the solutions for?”
Some of the questions that can be addressed directly to the individual are: “What have been some of the failures or failed projects during your tenure, and what have you learnt from them?” or “What are the things you wish you knew about this job when you started?”
Take the time
As you close out the year and start planning for next year, have you taken the time to capture some of the stories that made this year what it was? Have you captured the stories that support the numbers that we all report? If you haven’t, do take the time now.
Those stories captured and expressed intentionally will help build knowledge in your organisation. It will help drive your people. Isn’t that worth taking the time to do?