Towards New Dimensions in Knowledge Sharing
Reflections on The Springboard:
Stephen Denning's sensational new book
The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations, Butterworth-Heinemann (2000).
"This book is thus the story of how I stumbled on the power of story telling." (p.1)
The core insight inspiring this book is that people seek to influence each other by making up and telling stories. Once stated, the idea seems so obvious, like something we have known all along. Yet so many of the precepts of management are designed to hide this simple truth behind a screen of pseudo-scientific certainties. Measures, for example, are too often taken as determining what's true, instead of being part of a story which enables people to understand their world. Knowledge is categorised, abstracted and buried in the exclusive domains of narrowly focused experts, so the insightful stories which can act as Springboards to more holistic understandings are obscured. As the book makes abundantly clear, good Springboard stories are said to be very rare and hard to come by.
The Springboard tells how short, insightful stories encapsulating powerful messages were used to create new inter-disciplinary communities of knowledge practice in the World Bank. Stephen Denning weaves his meta-story and its lessons from strands of his own experiences on his (literal) journeys between Washington and Europe in disarmingly self-deprecatory terms.
It gets weird when your own experience and influence become part of the story being told, as began to happen when I met the author at the Business Intelligence Knowledge Management '98 conference where his Keynote presentation was given a standing ovation by the delegates. None of us there, I suspect, had ever seen anything like it. In the book, it is certainly celebrated as one of the high moments in the quest so far. As The Springboard so amply demonstrates, stories are about make believe. To work, a story must be persuasive which means it must be realistic and it must have protagonists with whom to identify. On the other hand, people are also much more prepared to make believe and much less critical when being told a story, than being told what they should think. This combination makes story telling a vital, but little used tool for influencing and informing people in times of change and uncertainty when the Official Story (e.g. the World Bank as champion of free market economics to enable prosperity for all) becomes untenable.
Stephen Denning does, however, set strict ethical boundaries around using story telling to influence change. "We do not bring any specific non-negotiable objective, but rather aim to stimulate the audience to envisage and create their own future." Using the story telling techniques described in the book, the mission statement of the World Bank was changed to "incorporate knowledge sharing as a principal tenet", while "the provision of global knowledge" has become "one of the organisation's most important functions" in less than two years. No mean accomplishment! Also the numbers of new communities of practice inspired by story telling are reported to be growing fast.
So the bottom line is that if you need to transform your organisation -- into a knowledge enterprise, for example -- The Springboard must be bought and used to help make the jump.
To find out more and order*, go to http://www.stevedenning.com
*Editor's Note - you can also order direct from
© Copyright, 2000. David Skyrme Associates Limited and Authors - All rights reserved.
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