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Launching & nurturing communities through storytelling

Communities of practice have turned out to be the key organizational arrangement for organizing knowledge sharing in large organizations. The phenomenon of communities of practice is known under different names. In the World Bank, they are called thematic groups; in Hewlett Packard they are "learning communities" or "learning networks"; in Chevron they are called "best practice teams", and in Xerox they are know as "family groups". Whatever the name, the formation of professional groupings where people come voluntarily together with others to share similar interests and learn from others’ skills has become the common feature of knowledge organizations.

But how are communities launched and nurtured? How are they “integrated” to the company’s strategy and its organizational structure.

Storytelling provides a natural tool, for a number of reasons:

  • Storytelling builds trust: Vibrant communities operate in an environment of trust and mutual understanding which encourages learning and candid dialogue. They are safe places where people who do not know can learn from those who do know. The environment of trust and mutual understanding can be facilitated by structured storytelling by members to each other.
  • Storytelling unlocks passion: Stories inherently generate feelings - interest, curisoity, fear, amusement, anger - and so the use of stories can be a channel to a key characteristic of communities. Thus contrary to the pattern of success in the industrial revolution and the modern enterprise in building wealth which has been built on a rational and mechanistic approach to problem solving, where clearly documented procedures and guidelines left little place, if any, to human emotions, the experience of knowledge management is that communities of practice only flourish when their members are passionately committed to a common purpose, whether it be the engineering design of water supply systems, the pursuit of better medical remedies, or more efficient economic techniques.This is a hard lesson for companies and executives who have spent their lives trying to keep emotion out of the workplace. Nevertheless the lesson repeatedly emerges from case studies and benchmarking of knowledge sharing programs. As a result - for reasons of sheer efficiency and effectiveness - the modern workplace is finding it necessary to provide time and space for both the head and the heart. Storytelling can be instrument handle and channel the unaccustomed emotion.
  • Storytelling is non-hierarchical: Whereas abstract language tends to be inherently adversarial, with "you" being asked to accept "my" idea, storytelling is ineherently collaborative, with the storyteller and listener collaborating to co-create the story. This is a key characteristic for building communities, since efforts at building communities in a hierarchical or top-down fashion are at best successful on a temporary basis. Soon they come unstuck as members refuse to contribute their time to activities which have no meaningful purpose for them. Storytelling can be an effective way to communicate in a non-hiearchical fashion.
  • For more on the role of storytelling to nurture communities, see chapter 7 of The Leader's Guide to Storytelling. There, you'll find twelve ways in which storytelling can be used to get people working together in communities and high-performance teams.


    See Stephen Denning, The Leader's Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative, Jossey-Bass, 2005.

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