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Faculty Research

Telling Tales

Once the lifeblood of campfires and living rooms, stories are redefining global communication, according to recent Marriott School research.

The prophecy was clear: the next man to enter the city driving a wagon would be king.

While the Phrygian elders debated the promise, an unassuming peasant named Gordias navigated his ox-drawn cart through the city gates and into the history books.

Gordias’s son Midas celebrated his family’s ascension to the throne by tethering his father’s cart to the acropolis with an intricate knot. Over time the knot hardened, and an oracle foretold that the person who untied it would one day rule all of Asia.

Many tried and many failed to untangle Midas’s knot. That is, until Alexander the Great arrived. Examining the challenge before him, Alexander unsheathed his sword and, with a single blow, sliced through the rope and sealed his fate as conqueror of the known world.

Historians can debate the details, but the power of this story is beyond dispute. It is a narrative that has transferred knowledge across ages, peoples, and geographies. The story has been used to legitimize dynasties by right of conquest and to teach the value of decisive thinking when solving difficult problems. It is a story that engages and entertains, instructs and enlightens.

Fast-forward some 2,300 years, and think about how modern organizations try to preserve and communicate critical knowledge. Far removed from anything remotely resembling the art of storytelling, corporate information tends to be delivered in technology-driven formats void of human emotion. Little wonder, then, that it often fails to deliver the results companies want.

After our in-depth study of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and its approach to organizational knowledge, which was published in Long Range Planning last year, it became apparent that the narrative approach of the ancients could be the most meaningful way for businesses to preserve and share organizational knowledge—especially on a global scale.

Plot Holes

Based in Washington, DC, the private-sector arm of the World Bank assists private enterprise in numerous emerging markets with its financing, investment, and advisory services. But the IFC’s 3,225-strong group of business advisers has grown quickly in recent years, and serious gaps in experience were appearing among its far-flung offices.

The solution was SmartLessons, an online library of personal stories about on-the-job challenges written exclusively by the company’s business advisers. While the individual stories reflect issues in a particular location, SmartLessons offers a valuable road map for any organization looking to make the most of the extensive knowledge acquired by its seasoned staff but too often left untapped by others.

For example, one SmartLessons contributor inspired IFC advisers around the world by sharing how she helped artisans in Egypt craft a business initiative. Another wrote about his experience working with a Kenyan hotel chain to develop an HIV/AIDS prevention program, triggering ideas for similar projects in other regions.

During our study of SmartLessons, we interviewed users and examined the efforts of senior management to promote the system. In the process we found nearly universal use and enjoyment of the stories within the business advisory services group. At the time of the research, the SmartLessons library featured more than 350 stories and was the company’s third most-visited website, after the IFC homepage and the portal page for its intranet.

“Sharing experiences and lessons . . . helps our teams contribute to and benefit from being part of a worldwide professional family and enables us to provide clients with what they expect: advice based on deep, up-to-date global experience,” says Laurence Carter, director of IFC’s Infrastructure Advisory Department.

Advisers report reading one another’s stories with interest, and the whole organization benefits from increased communication and efficiency. Some advisers search the index for stories on specific issues. Others read SmartLessons because they are entertaining and revealing about their fellow workers.

But high readership does not necessarily indicate that the stories are effective in transferring knowledge. So we also studied the content, use, and other dimensions of more than 130 narratives, looking at what drove interest in the stories and what led users and experts within the company to evaluate them as useful.

Exposition

Much like bards who passed down the tale of the Gordian knot, successfully transferring knowledge requires a storyteller who can captivate audiences. The IFC has taken several steps to ensure its advisers spin compelling yarns.

First, authors are instructed to detail their personal experiences on a specific project, including the lessons they learned and the emotions they felt along the way. Narratives that share emotion have a clear advantage over dry reports when it comes to competing for readers’ attention. Being able to identify with the author’s situation holds the reader’s interest and encourages comparative thinking. Each reader is likely to ask, “What would I have done in this situation? Why did the author do it this way?” For example, a sales rep could write a narrative about what he or she learned on a particularly successful or challenging sales call or pass along stories from customers as they relate to product research and development.

Getting the reader to identify with the author emotionally is usually the first step in spurring the reader to action. Emotion is what often drives people to act or derive value from information.

Second, authors are encouraged to include details. Stories that describe the political environment, the individuals with whom people worked, and the difficulties of the communities or companies involved help readers see where similarities exist, even across cultural contexts. One manager commented that a SmartLessons article she read on corporate governance in Ukraine “captured almost exactly the challenges I had been experiencing implementing my own similar project here in Peru. The only difference was I now had some very plausible solutions and tips to help me navigate my way.”

With supportive details and glimpses into the authors’ thinking, SmartLessons stories clarify the extent to which conditions are similar in other countries. This helps reduce the uncertainty that advisers and their local contacts sometimes feel about the relevance of advice from outside the host country or region. As another regular user of SmartLessons says, “There is greater confidence in our proposals both from IFC . . . and from our donor partners’ side when we share that we have drawn on the wisdom of others who did similar projects to create our program.”

Finally, the IFC offers would-be authors writing help, from crafting an outline to building a narrative. Stories are edited too—if needed—by a central desk and then posted on the intranet without delay or bureaucratic interference.

Story Time

SmartLessons is full of great stories. But what’s a great story if nobody reads it?

Early on, the IFC recognized that attracting eyeballs was a crucial element of running this knowledge-management venture, and it took steps to spread the word.

In our study we found that interest in a particular story was partly driven by the organization’s internal marketing campaigns. Such efforts include emails to employees that profile SmartLessons authors and include excerpts from their stories. These emails provide a picture of the author and a link to the SmartLessons article itself. The emails tend to highlight the personality of the author to get readers to connect with what the author has to say. In fact, highlighting the author made a story nearly twice as likely to be read.

Most organizations do a poor job of getting people interested in distributed knowledge, usually because they try to sell the value of the knowledge first. IFC found it’s better to get people to read the story first and then to let the individuals themselves determine the value of the knowledge.

The organization also drives interest in the project as a whole by enlisting what it calls “champions” for SmartLessons throughout the corporation. Champions are members of the business advisory services group who create buzz by encouraging others to write and read stories. Champions also seek feedback from local offices to gauge the impact of the lessons and act as judges, awarding the best authors cash prizes up to $1,500.

Additionally, SmartLessons asks readers to evaluate each story on a scale of one to five stars. We explored in detail what aspects of a story affect the evaluations the story received. We found a number of interesting drivers: emotional content, context of narrative, and admitting errors. Interestingly, narratives that discussed failure or mistakes were nearly one and one-quarter times more likely to be rated valuable.

Resolution

All companies, regardless of size, industry, or locality, can benefit from a narrative approach to knowledge management, especially professional-service firms, since the structure of such companies tends to be decentralized and informal. A bottom-up, but formal, approach to sharing knowledge may make employees more willing to contribute and consume stories about what they have learned while working with specific clients.

Consider a large pharmaceutical or chemical company, where researchers find it difficult to keep up with each other’s work due to the breadth of the organization. Such a company could reward scientists for writing stories about what they found in their research or how they developed a new idea. The authors and their colleagues may find such stories a better use of their time than writing—and reading—formal reports or research papers.

Personal stories can also help break down barriers between companies and customers. In a medical-device company we studied, clients were invited each year to tell their own story of how the company’s products had saved their lives. The stories were then directed toward engineering employees to help them fully appreciate the significance of their work.

With a formal system developed to capture informal stories that are fun and entertaining, people in your company may be more willing to listen to what other highly dispersed colleagues are up to—and may actually receive that information before it is outdated.

“SmartLessons offers a chance for your regular operations analyst in N’Djamena, Chad, to bond and share ideas with a project leader in Dhaka, Bangladesh, without having to move across continents or even pick up the phone,” explains Sita Ramaswami, a former manager in IFC’s advisory services group.

Exotic settings, plucky heroes and heroines, and mystical knots aren’t required for stories to entertain and inform. Companies of any kind can leverage the collective brainpower of their workers with a story-based approach.

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Written by Shad S. Morris and James B. Oldroyd
Illustrations by Jonathan Bartlett

About the Authors
Shad S. Morris and James B. Oldroyd are professors of organizational leadership and strategy at the Marriott School. This text is based on their 2015 article, “Scaling Up Your Story: An Experiment in Global Knowledge Sharing at the World Bank,” written with Sita Ramaswami and published in Long Range Planning.