Category Archives: Storytelling

On good writing

I was reading the Sunday Canberra Times a couple of days ago over a morning cup of tea.  A short syndicated article in the Sunday Focus section alerted me to the fact that this year is the 60th anniversary of the death of British writer, Eric Arthur Blair (aka George Orwell).  George Orwell is one of my favourite authors; up there with Charles Dickens, Emile Zola, Milan Kundera, Wallace Stegner, and Patrick White.  Funnily enough, all those writers might be termed under the heading, “classic” fiction, establishing my literary preferences very clearly.  I do enjoy the odd contemporary novel but for the most part, I enjoy the story and the writing of my classic literary heroes.

I first read George Orwell at school when our English class studied the novel, Nineteen Eighty Four.  I later re-read the book and saw the film starring actors John Hurt and Richard Burton. I also went on to read Animal Farm and Keep the Aspidistra flying.  I enjoyed all three novels immensely.  I will have to find these three books at home for a re-read.  One thing I can say, is that all three novels were brilliantly written and totally absorbing. 

Each story had a significant message.  I always found the message in Nineteen Eighty Four as being equally applicable to the communists (the focus for Orwell) as for the “democracies” when it came to influencing and manipulating public opinion through various methods of propaganda, political “spin”, and news bias.  And Animal Farm was, and still is, quite a metaphor for management science as well as for politics!

A feature of the writing was its quality.  The Canberra Times article (“Orwell still packs a punch”) lists six qualities that Orwell recognised as being indicators of good writing:

1. “never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print
2. never use a long word when a short word will do
3. if it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out
4. use the active rather than the passive
5. never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent
6. break any of these (above) rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous”

These are sound writing principles, albeit I see some scope for compromise depending on the appropriate context in which one writes.  Nevertheless, Orwell’s six writing principles essentially say to write for your reader – your audience – so that they have no difficulty in understanding what you have to say.

I think the principle of making what we have to say understandable to our audience is very good advice indeed.  The challenge for all of us is to keep good writing principles in mind in all our communications.

And so off to the bookshelves at home to search for my Orwell novels to be read again….sometime in the near future!

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On flickr and development agencies

There’s an interesting blog post from Timo at the Red Cross about the use of Flickr to showcase the international development and humanitarian work done by that agency (thanks Nadejda on KM4dev for the tip).  The Red Cross Flickr stream is really a terrific site and well worth a visit.  Where I work, AusAID has a Flickr site too.

Timo’s blog post cites eight lessons learned from the experience of using Flickr:

1. know your audience
2. newsworthiness beats quality
3. less is more
4. understand what you want to achieve
5. use Flickr groups
6. appreciate the work of others
7. need to give solid attention to Flickr to maintain traffic
8. be careful with creative commons licensing

What is missing, and Timo alludes to this in his blog post, is that Flickr needs better integration with other applications. Timo suggests that Flickr needs to better integrate with Facebook, for example.  In addition, I think we also need to work out how better to use Flickr to tell the stories behind the photos.  I still feel that the images, words and tags are not enough to really give me a strong sense of place and story.  There is greater potential for education and learning beyond just the images themselves, albeit I know how powerful images can be in their own right.

It would be great to be able to link the photos to a short podcast, perhaps a narrative fragment from one of the image subjects, to really give stronger context to the individual images.  Not sure if this is possible, but I am certain narrative would add to the user-experience.

On communication, language and meaning

Last night I watched a movie on DVD called Where the green ants dream.  The film came out in 1984 and was directed by noted German director Werner Herzog.  I remember seeing the movie at the cinema back then and not quite fully coming to terms with the storyline.  When I saw the DVD of the movie in a shop recently, I bought it to have another look.

The film is about a land claim by a clan of Australian aboriginals of a sacred site in an area where a mining company is prospecting and drilling for uranium.  The aboriginals claim the land is sacred because it is where the green ants live until they are ready to fly east, after which the cycle of renewal begins again.  The story is couched in terms of birth, death and rebirth.  The mining company, with all their drilling and explosions, are at risk of waking and disturbing the green ants and breaking the dreamtime cycle.

The first observation about the land predicament is the difference in the explanations given by the aboriginal people and the white mining company representatives concerning the importance of the land in question.  For the aborigines, the land is a sacred symbol of life while for the white man, the land is something to be exploited and used for riches.  The meaning surrounding the same patch of land is totally different and dependant on the contextualised stories of each group – the green ant story from the aboriginals and the development and progress story of the white people.  This is a common point of difference between indigenous populations and settler groups in North America and Africa as well.

This isn’t a film review, so I just want to point out one particular scene in the film when the aboriginals and the mining company representatives are in court.  They are in court to settle ownership of the land in question.  At one point, an elderly aboriginal man stands up and walks to the witness box in the middle of another witness’s evidence.  The witness steps down and the aboriginal elder takes his place and starts to speak in his own language.  The judge is confused but sympathetic and asks if the man can speak English or whether anyone can translate.  The judge looks at his notes and identifies the elderly aboriginal man, saying “I thought this man was mute!”.

One of the other aboriginal men, one of the plaintiffs, stands and tells the judge that there is no one in the court room, or in the country, or in the world that can understand this man – he is the last living survivor of his language and that is why he is referred to as mute.

If we cannot understand what people are saying (or writing for that matter) we do not have communication. Unless somebody can translate the meaning for us, it will be as if we are mute.  In all our communications, we must try and put ourselves in the shoes of the other so that we can find the best way to ensure the meaning of our message is understood.  At the same time, when we try to put on the shoes of the other person, there will be times when we also have to look beyond just the shoes, but to consider the whole contextual environment in which those shoes have walked.  This is not always easy and usually forgotten in our rush to speak.

Without good communication in all its forms, there can be no knowledge management.

On a writer in residence and the airport experience

The bods at Heathrow Airport in London are reported to have hired author Alain de Botton as a writer-in-residence. The idea is to give de Botton unfettered access to the airport so that he can write about the modern experience of airport life. As de Botton says in the article, airports are a good microcosm of the global themes of human life (ok, I paraphrased a bit here).

However, de Botton will only have full access to Heathrow Airport for a week so perhaps the tag writer-in-residence is a little on the exagerated side. I guess that the term short-term publicist doesn’t have the same sort of public interest as writer-in-residence for those high brow types in London. But let’s wait and see what de Botton gets to the bottom of at Heathrow first before speculating any further as to the outcome of the exercise…

I suppose the bods at Heathrow Airport are hoping that de Botton can write something positive about the airport experience since it has continually underperformed passenger expectations. The opening of Terminal Five last year was a disaster. And when I travelled through Heathrow in 1986 on the day Terminal 4 opened, there was a baggage handlers strike and the best part of the Heathrow experience back then was leaving it!

Yet now in this modern age I am surprised that de Botton wouldn’t just blog or tweet about his airport experience. The fact that he has been contracted to write a book based on his one week tour of duty at Heathrow smells suspiciously like a publicity stunt to me. Moreover, the chap needs to be given more time – let’s say a writer-in-residence for three months. We all know that one week doesn’t make a summer!

So de Botton will write a book that will be published and all will be revealed then – hopefully including the answers to many a passenger problem at Europe’s busiest airport epicentre.

But speaking of answers, Heathrow Airport should just listen to the thousands of customers that use the airport each day if they really want to know what goes on in the airport and what people really think. Having a well-known author intermediate these airport experiences in the 21st century is no longer necessary – go straight to the source and get the information direct from the people using your services and respond accordingly. I am sure there would be plenty of narrative fragments (stories) that could be collected from customers and suppliers,and then aggregated to identify common patterns or themes that the airport owners would need to address.

That is, of course, if you’re really serious about understanding the true airport experience.

On outcomes and impact

There are many ways to find out about things. Research is obviously part of that. And research likes to use quantitative measures in order to maximise objectivity, even if these measures don’t give you much meaning.

Let’s look at hit rates on a website – a metric commonly used for “statistical purposes”. What does it mean? Well, it means that a website or page view has been looked at a certain amount of times. The inference is that the more hits you have the better must be the result. But what is the result?

If the intended result is to have as many hits as possible since one assumes hit rates equate with “eyeballs”, then surely high hit rate numbers are great. But is this the result an organisation really wants from it’s website? What happens as a consequence of the “eyeballs” is the question I really want to get an answer to. In reality, high hit rates could indicate a bad website. Your website visitors and customers are clicking away, frustrated by their inability to reach an outcome they want to achieve. Just get those click rates up and everything will be fine….hmmmmm.

Let’s do a survey then. A survey is actually pretty limiting.  A questionnaire is bounded by the construction of the questions and limited answer options. In nearly all cases, one could answer a question yes or no, depending on the particular circumstances at some point in time. Surveys also don’t do a great job in measuring continuous change over time. And conducting surveys or focus groups with large numbers of people are often difficult and time consuming, certinly if a continuous process is required.

Yet these methods are still held to be superior to more qualitative approaches to research. However, if you actually asked your website users what they thought of the website, perhaps they might tell you that it takes a lot of clicking to get through to complete the task at hand. They might tell you that your website is poorly organised, with lousy navigation and confusing labels. They might tell you that the photos on the home page add nothing to their customer experience. They might tell you that your website could better… for them. And if you have a continuous dialogue with them, they will be even more insightful as to how to improve or validate what you are trying to do. Observation at point of impact is a good way of thinking about this.

I can see some meaning from getting those kind of responses! Click rate numbers – forget it. Now I have real information that can make an impact to the people I say (and the organisation) I am trying to serve.

So what we are interested in finding out is impact. What is the  impact that occurs from what we are doing? This is different to outcome. Click rates are an outcome. Obtaining continuous feedback to ensure satisfied customers buy from you, recommend you, and stay loyal, is another.

Now what if we could get this feedback quickly, continually over time, on a large scale, context-sensitive, and in a way where the person giving us the information gives it in terms of how it affects them, and not through some intermediary or stilted survey method?

I set the scene this way to introduce some thoughts from a presentation at the ANU yesterday by Dave Snowden,  special guest speaker at the ACT-KM forum. Dave talked about a number of current projects he was working on. The common element from his talk was the importance of  determining impact and how then to take relevant action as a consequence.

I will use the example of the Liverpool Slavery Museum in the UK from Dave’s talk yesterday; albeit the Children of the world project was for me the most fascinating.

One could count the number of people going through the museum each month and year. The numbers might indicate level of popularity but one can’t be sure. At best, they show that “x” number of people came and paid “y” number of UK pounds to do so.  One could do a simple accounting calculation at this point and perhaps leave it at that.

But what if you wanted to know what effect the museum had on people? What if you wanted to know how successful the museum was in educating visitors about slavery, or in providing a unique experience? What really was the impact of the museum visit?

[It is of course true that if you don’t want to know about your customers’ experiences and are happy with just throughput figures – akin to an assembly line – then impact will have very little interest for you. The process will be sufficient].

Dave told us how there are computer screens and keyboards at the museum where people can record their experiences and feelings about the museum exhibits. People can nominate any of the individual exhibits to make a comment or express a feeling. The people making these comments are then able to “index” or tag their comments using terms chosen freely that signify meaning to them. Nobody  is interpretating what they say and adding any bias. At the same time, this information capture is continuous and provides for scale, something a static survey couldn’t do. The museum now has thousands of narrative fragments “indexed” by the individuals themselves. This information is aggregated and patterns observed. These patterns may suggest a change to a particular exhibit, or perhaps some alteration to how a museum education officer conducts a group tour.

In the Liverpool Museum case, they have both quantitative information (number of visitors and monies received) AND what impact the museum had on the visitors.

Yet still there are detractors:

  • stories (narrative fragments is the preferred method used by Dave Snowden) are not real facts
  • some people may just write junk and not tell the truth
  • it’s all so subjective

All three statements might be true. The point is, if we want to measure impact, then we need to know what people think and what effect something had on them. And we need to know what they think, not what what we might guess at. The capture and aggregation of narrative fragments is a good way of doing this. “Junk” can be easily discarded but sometimes “junk” may be of interest as a weak signal, something we should pay attention to. Where you want to establish an impact on people, of course there is subjectivity. However, how the narrative fragments are captured, aggregated and used is quite a rigorous and objective method in itself.

Lastly, no matter what the method, unless people use the tools correctly and respond appropriately, no research activity will have any validity.

On knowledge management measurement

It’s a fact of life that senior management nearly always love to see facts and figures. Facts and figures can be concise, are usually thought of as being objective, and provide decision makers with raw data from which to base decisions. Senior executives also claim they are time-poor and therefore only want to see just the facts, often in graphical or tabular form because they believe this information is easier to understand.

We therefore often have a problem conveying the full story of our work in knowledge management since we do not always have the facts and figures senior executives want. We often provide information that is easy to collect but does not provide real meaning.  The classic example is in using hit rates for intranet pages and web sites. High hit rates can often indicate confusion just as well as indicating purposeful traffic.

And, of course, facts and figures can be gamed. Work perfomance becomes artificially directed towards a narrow set of quantitative targets rather than the complete set of workplace activities and responsibilities. Narrow quantitative targets often stifle innovative thinking, limit team work, and inhibits building trust within organisations. Key performance indicators (KPI’s) are a classic case of turning targets into the target itself!

The other problem is that the outcome of a number of knowledge management processes and activities does not always show a direct linear relationship. The beneficial outcome might come out of a series of interconnected relationships and serendipitous exchanges that take time to yield a distinct outcome on which to report. Social network analysis and knowledge mapping are techniques helpful here but they themselves take considerable time and analysis.

One strategy that I have used in the past is to provide the “raw data” in graphical form with an explanatory paragraph under each graph or chart. It is important to place the graphical representation of the data in some form of explanatory context. Hit rates and traffic numbers on communities of practice are not sufficient on their own.

The other pieces of “data” I provide are stories – narratives of things that have happened as a consequence of an action. This action might be closing a business deal based on information gleaned from a community of practice. It might be that getting that particular report on time meant that the final prepared document for management was more informed and better reflective of the contextual environment.  Or it could mean that meeting the right person at the right time meant that the business plan had a greater chance of success. There are many outcomes that one can use.

The skill is in finding these examples and ensuring they represent the kinds of outcomes senior management want to hear and can understand.  While I think any form of conversation that enhances our understanding and capacity to work more effectively is a good thing, others do not. Choose outcomes that are meaningful to the person or people you are reporting to.

But don’t stop there.

I would also include a story (or narrative fragment) that might not be directly related to a business outcome, but demonstrates a more intangible element. If the narrative fragment is interesting enough, it is surprising how much this sparks some interest to hear more. These “tell me more” instances don’t always happen, but when they do, they can be even more powerful demonstrations of knowledge management work that just the data.

In this regard, it is vital that the knowledge manager establish and maintain personal and visible relationships with people throughout the organisation. Scaleability can be enhanced through communication channels like the intranet,  listservs, blogs, Twitter (if appropriate), and communities of practice. The knowledge manager must remain visible and be perceived to be an important gate keeper or lynch pin for people scattered throughout the organisation.

In reporting, I strongly recommend utilising both quantitative and qualitative information. If senior management have more meaning around the work of knowledge management, the better chance management will see the benefits.

On conferences

Apart from just moving house (again) and waiting to get the utilities connected (again), I have been thinking about conferences.  My thinking was instigated by an approach I received from a conference organiser to present at an upcoming conference in September on collective intelligence. Almost at the same time, another conference organiser contacted me asking about case studies in government that could be used to demonstrate effective collaboration. And, of course, there is the plethora of conference invitations and conference pamphlets that come across my email and my desk each week advertising future conferences with discounted early bird rates. The message is clear:  Get in quick, folks!

As I thought about all these conferences I was conscious of the fact that essentially they were all the same. The conference organisers invite speakers to present under a particular conference theme. People attend the conference to listen to these presenters, network with professional peers, and hopefully find some useful information and learnings that will be of personal or workplace relevance. It is pretty standard conference fare.

Now that’s all very well and I am happy to participate in such events. But I am thinking there could be other ways to provide conferences with something different. I know there are un-conferences and the like but I am thinking of something else.

Firstly, I’d be interested in a conference where the theme was not so tightly regimented. I am thinking of a conference at which there are presenters speaking on different and unrelated topics but from which the audience could develop particular personal or collective themes themselves. The audience would therefore become an active participant by discussing these emergent themes rather than having the themes imposed upon them. I see strengths and weaknesses in this approach – my interdisciplinary preferences are also at work here. But at least there would be some active thinking, rather than what often happens at conferences is passive and sleepy acceptance.

Secondly, I’d like the keynote to be in the form of an interview. There would be an interviewer but I’d like the audience to be able to take part as well – perhaps providing some questions in advance from which the interviewer and conference organisers could put into some form of meaningful order (randomness would also work for me but I think effective interviewing relies on a logical progression). The interview lends itself more to a storytelling approach rather than a lecture. The Q&A format stimulates quetioning in the minds of the audience throughout the keynote – something that could be followed up after the conference as well.

Thirdly, I’d like conferences to have some follow-up. We go to a conference, hear some stuff, maybe feel pretty good about things, and then go home or back to the office. Why can’t we tap into the collective experience of people after the conference officially finishes? If the conference is interesting and participatory, then there is the opportunity to extend the discussion outside the formal conference environment.

And talking of follow-up, I’d really be interested in any game that could be developed to reinforce or stimulate further thought about the conference presentations. I am thinking simple card or board games, but more technical games on  a website would be equally useful (if a tad expensive!).  A “snakes and ladders” for effective knowledge management would be absolutely fantastic! Games are great information reinforcements and something worthy of considered thought.

And lastly, I’d like conference organisers to think more creatively about conference “notes”. A few Powerpoint slides from presenters in a drab folder doesn’t cut if for me these days, I’m afraid. It also makes it difficult for presenters since Powerpoint slides often become the presentation (the defacto content) rather than acting as a supporting element to the actual presentation. Powerpoint slides are not conference notes! I really like the idea of podcasts and I am a big fan of the podcasts that come out of the SXSW Conference each year. Great stuff!

Now if I can work out how to introduce African drumming into a conference I would be really satisfied…