By BHARAT AVALANI
I was in Jakarta a few weeks ago and my visit coincided with me attending a farewell party of a colleague and a very dear friend whom I have known from my early days in the working world.
Prior to the farewell party, my colleague Deby Sadrach spoke on Leading with Heart. She spoke about how she had refused a promotion, thinking that she was not ready for the responsibility. She was subsequently promoted to the board with another role and told that she was given an “A team” to work for her.
The business was transformed under her leadership. She was humble enough not to mention the numbers but credited her A team. She also spoke about her leadership style, her life’s purpose and her bosses.
After she spoke I asked some of the people if they had heard the stories before, all of them said: “Never”. This is the tribute I wrote on Facebook:
“I remember reading somewhere about a teacher who asked her student why she thought she was doing much better now. She said, “It is because I like myself when I am with you.” I have no doubt that there are hundreds of Unilever-ites who would genuinely echo that sentiment when asked about Deby Sadrach. They liked themselves better when they were with her. They felt good, felt loved and felt they could do more!”
Managers leaving or moving to new assignments always take with them valuable stories which are not always shared.
In 2004, a study of 240 organisations in the United States found that the greatest impact of employee turnover was lost knowledge, and not profitability!
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Even in a country where knowledge management practices have been around, lost knowledge had negatively affected a staggering 78% of these organisations.
Using stories is one of the more powerful knowledge management practices. Stories transform tacit knowledge into explicit knowledgwhile; and stories are great vehicles to share that knowledge.
Indraneel “IC”, my colleague from Anecdote shared this story with me: 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.
Using stories is one of the more powerful knowledge management practices. Stories transform tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge; and stories are great vehicles to share that knowledge.
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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%. He spent a month trying to find other ways to deal with the US$1.1mil 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 program 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 like, “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?”
Watch this corresponding video:
Bringing it all together
Having identified the areas concerned, you would now need to get the person to tell you stories about these areas.
While all of us are born storytellers, most of us freeze when asked, “Tell us a story.” It’s even worse if we are asked, “Tell me a story about markket research process errors.”
However, it isn’t very difficult when we follow a process we call story listening. This process of narrative enquiry uses questions that get the person back to moments in time and once we can take people back to a moment in time, we most certainly get a story.
Two powerful questions we use in story listening are the “when” question and the “where” question. The other questions include questions with emotion words like elated, disappointed, frustrated, proud. Memories are triggered with these emotions and those memories contain the stories we are looking for.
So, go ahead and elicit those stories and stop knowledge from walking out of the door.
To share some of your stories, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more personal stories like these, click here.
Bharat is a faculty of Leaderonomics who specialises in creating brand experiences through storytelling. He is a veteran FMCG marketer and a memory collector too. He helps executive teams put stories to work by helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, influence and inspire people.