On narrative capture and drought

Having followed complexity theory and narrative for some time in the knowledge management literature, and enriched by the Cognitive Edge accreditation course I undertook this year, I have become more attuned to opportunities where narrative capture and sensemaking can be used to provide meaningful information for organisational development and as a guide for government policy.

I was therefore interested to read today about a report on Australian drought policy in which people’s stories made a significant contribution to the government’s understanding of the social impact of drought. The ABC reports that Agriculture Minister, Tony Burke, said that “many people told the report’s authors that it was the first time they had been asked about the way the drought was affecting them personally”. The personal stories are what gives meaning to the problems the report is supposed to identify and inform policy about.

Now, having worked previously at Parliament House in information and research for almost six years, I am well versed in the ways in which Standing Committees and Senate Reports are researched, including the level of community consultation and public submissions involved. Yet, the input from people is relatively small in number given the scale of the issues and the size of the impacted populations. And not all views are expressed and many people are not heard at all.

Imagine a government report looking at the social impact of drought that had used systematic narrative capture, personal tagging, and sensemaking software as the basis of the primary research. Imagine aggregating thousands of narrative fragments from all around drought-stricken Australia and using the aggregated information to have emergent themes become visible at different levels of intensity. The emergent themes are those that individuals within rural communities have identified by themselves and are therefore more representative of what is really happening than anything else.

From a policy perspective these themes are significant. Agriculture Minister Tony Burke recognises the policy need when he says in the same ABC news story: “the report shows the policies to support farmers and communities through drought still need a lot of work”. If government policy is really trying to get to the heart of the social problems facing drought-stricken families and communities, then hearing from these people in massive numbers and having them self-identify their concerns and problems is critical to finding a solution.

I listened to Dave Snowden at the act-km conference in Canberra last week talking about how seriously we should take people’s stories – or narrative fragments as he prefers to call them. Dave blogs about this narrative issue when he says: “there is far more value in listening to stories, and gathering fragmented anecdotes than in telling stories. Meaning comes from fine granularity information objects (OK it’s jargon but it makes a point) and their interaction with my current reality. Not from some leader telling me a story (the other name for that is propaganda). Narrative work is a about meaning making, not about story-telling (which has a double meaning in English)”.

Clearly, the real strength of narrative is about meaning! And narrative capture, self-tagging of content, and aggregation is a method that leads to emergent issue identification that provides the meaning from which good policy can be developed for effective decision-making.

I believe that mass narrative capture and self-tagging of content can be aggregated in such a way that important thematic elements become visible to improve decision-making and problem-solving. At the very least, emergent themes bring “weak signals” to the surface for further questioning (often the weak signals go unnoticed during other forms of primary research).

Agriculture Minister Tony Burke would do well to consider this type of analysis for future research in policy development and implementation, especially in relation to social impacts.

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