Friday, 29 January 2021

The power of stories in Knowledge Management

Here are 4 reasons why stories can be a very powerful way to share knowledge.

I often use the US Wildland fire lessons center as a great example of knowledge sharing. Their portal contains lessons, advice, a blog, summaries of incidents, and links to videos hosted on their youtube channel. Playing one of these videos yesterday as part of an online webinar reminded me of the power of stories in sharing knowledge. 

Below is the video I used. It concerns awareness and strategies to avoid dangerous trees when fighting a forest fire. 

This material could have been presented in a dry formal way, in bullet point lists and PowerPoint slides. Instead they decided to use stories. Watch the first minute of the video below, and you can immediately see the power of this approach.


That was powerful, wasn't it?

So why are stories so powerful as a means of sharing knowledge?

  1. They remind us that knowledge comes from the real experience of real people. People "just like you". Knowledge is not an abstract thing; it's grounded in reality. In the case of this video concerning danger trees, it's grounded in the reality of risk, injury and death. It's "hard-won" knowledge.
  2. They convey emotion, in the way that the written word cannot. In the video above, the emotion is a very healthy respect for the dangers that trees present. In fact, the video identifies "normalisation of risk" as an issue, and the stories certainly would discourage anyone to become blasé about the risk from trees. The emotion in the first story also acts as a sobering introduction which compels you to treat the rest of the video very seriously. You think "this could happen to me if I'm not careful".
  3. The great thing about stories is that everyone has a story to tell. If you see someone else share their story, it legitimises you to share your own. This is the concept of social proof; if you want to promote a behaviour in your organisation, show real stories of  people exhibiting that behaviour. If you want people to share knowledge from failure, then show stories of people talking about failure (as an example of this, see the NASA "my best mistake" compilation). This legitimises others to share their failure stories, and the knowledge they have gained as a result, and starts to bring about culture change.
  4. You can use the stories to convince senior managers of the value of KM.  Senior managers will support Knowledge Management if they believe it can be done, and can add value. Like most people, they "believe it when they see it". My colleague Ian Corbett speaks below about using video testimony from a young engineer as social proof to convince senior managers of the value Knowledge Management can bring.
“This was a high-profile project with big returns and the opportunity to do some marketing of what the processes will do.  I recorded one of the engineers talking. He is young, credible and eloquent, and I put his video in a presentation for the senior management team. I gave the talk, and the video transformed the presentation and got people on the edge of their seat. This was the turning point for the Director of Operations who is now the high-level sponsor for KM”

So think about the value of stories when it comes to transferring knowledge. There may be more benefits than you think.

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