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Narrative Knowledge

"Data to information to knowledge." That's the progression the KM industry has been touting. But suppose this brings us to look for knowledge in all the wrong places. Suppose knowledge isn't a special type of information. Suppose you can't get to knowledge without jumping over a big discontinuity in what we too easily think of as an evolutionary progression.

Here's the surprise ending: Knowledge is narrative. Stories. It's got the best qualities of a yarn told by Tom Clancy, Garrison Keillor and Stephen King. And maybe some Homer also.

Ok, let's back up.

Why do we want knowledge anyway? (I'm talking here, of course, of knowledge in the bastardized, commercialized, computerized, business-ized sense, not the real knowledge that the smartest people in our culture have worried about for 2,500 years.) Why isn't information enough for us?

One line of KM thought says that the problem with information is that there's too darn much of it. Thus KM is really about selective forgetting. This part of the culture uses words like "filter," "focus," and "knowledge mining."

Another cultural segment says that the problem with information is that it lacks context. KM is about seeing the broader implications of information. You hear words such as "strategic," "trends," "synthesizing," and "mapping."

Each of these approaches takes an aspect of information and tries to ratchet it up so that it becomes knowledge.

But the real problem with the information being provided to us in our businesses is that, for all the facts and ideas, we still have no idea what we're talking about. We don't understand what's going on in our business, our market, our world.

In fact, it'd be right to say that we already *know* way too much. KM isn't about helping us to know more. It's about helping us to understand. Knowledge without understanding is like, well, information.

So, how do we understand things? From the first accidental wiener roast on a prehistoric savanna, we've understood things by telling stories. It's through stories that we understand how the world works.

  • Stories are a big step sidewise and up from information.

  • Unlike information, they have a start and a finish. The order counts a lot.

  • They talk about events, not conditions. They imply a deep relationship among the events (a relationship characterized overall as "unfolding" as if the end were present in the beginning -- as of course it almost always is [and as was foretold, in a fractally recursive sense, by Aristotle at our culture's beginning]).

  • Stories are about particular humans; no substitutions allowed.

  • And, unlike a set of economic forecasts or trends analysis, they do not pretend to offer the certainty that life will continue to work this way. (On the other hand, the story is more likely to be correct than the forecast because it takes *all* of our current understanding of the world to accept a story.) And stories are told in a human voice; it matters who's telling it.

So, stories are not a lot like information. But they *are* the way we understand.

Take a negative example. I worked at a company that tanked for lots of good reasons. But when a bunch of us ex-employees get together, we can't tell the story of the company. That is precisely the same thing as saying we don't *understand* what happened. Oh, we have lots of information about the steep fall off in sales and the precise dates of missed shipments. But we don't *understand* what happened because we can't tell the story.

Take a positive example. In Andy Groves' mediocre book on what he's learned from Intel's "strategic inflection" points, the conclusions he draws are jejune. But the stories he tells of how Intel weathered the Pentium math flaw and how it escaped the trap of staying a memory manufacturer are instructive, indeed almost interesting.

So, how to apply this to your workaday world? First of all, you already have. When you are telling someone how you won this account or lost that one, when you are explaining why the competitor's trade show booth sucked so bad, when you are telling a financial analyst how the market got to be as wacky as it is, you're already telling stories. You can't help it. You're human. Stories are how we make sense of things.

It's only when we're trying to be very business-like that we strip out everything interesting from our conversation. Let's stop. Instead:

  • Ban the Opening Joke. Begin your next Powerpoint presentation by saying, "Let me tell you a story..." and then recount what made the market the way it is, what got your company to come up with such an incredible product, what obstacles particular customers faced and overcame by using your product.

  • Make sure your forms you use to "collect knowledge" have big empty boxes in them so the story can be told.

  • Every meeting with a potential partner, every exciting sales meeting, every important encounter with customers can best be told as a story. Do so.

  • Chris "RageBoy" Locke has written narrative white papers for companies. Is there any form of writing more deadly than a white paper? Not Chris's.

  • Collect the stories of your business and publish them on an intranet site.

  • Reward the tellers of good stories. They're the people everyone's listening to anyway.

  • Rewrite your mission statement as a Corporate Story. In fact, wouldn't a narrative version of an annual report help the company more than the usual hearty prose and canned snaps of happy employees?

Stories do exactly what we want knowledge to do: based on real events, they tell us how the world works. If it can't be told in a story, then it literally didn't happen -- there's no "it" and there's no understanding of it.

Anything else is just information.


I was chatting with the CEO of an inventive (actually, re-inventive, but that's a different story) 150-person software company. He was just back from calling on a major prospect a couple of time zones away. How did it go, I asked.

"Great. We're up against OldCo, our traditional competitor, and it went great. I told him about our direction, and they were thrilled. It wasn't so much the functionality. It's that we're the young company on the move and OldCo is the old-line, stodgy dinosaur."

This isn't narrative. It's myth.

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