notebookDave Snowden has a lot of nerve. The founder of the IBM Cynefin Centre doesn’t stop at saying that collecting ‘best practices’ and most other accepted Knowledge Management activities are largely fruitless (he makes an exception for standard practices in highly prescriptive jobs, and proven, authorized practices in high-risk and high-security situations). He is almost as disdainful of many of the idealistic goals of Personal Knowledge Management — helping front-line workers to do their jobs more simply and effectively and to find experts they can draw on and network with. If the tools to do PKM aren’t adequate, he maintains, the answer is to create better tools, not show people how to use deficient ones (and creating tools is IT’s job, not KM’s). One of the things he thinks KM should be doing is helping management understand and lead their organizations more effectively. Management is, after all, the group paying for organizations’ KM activities, and a group that is, in most organizations, far from happy with what KM has delivered. Snowden argues that the best way for KM to help management is to be a kind of ‘cultural anthropologist’ in the organization you are working in or advising.

One of the ways anthropologists study and understand tribes is by listening to and gathering stories. Analogously, Snowden says, it’s important that KM people get out and spend time on the front lines really understanding what the organization’s real stories are — not the ones that appear in the mission statement or the company newsletter, which say what management wishes the company culture was, but the peer-to-peer stories that truly define the organizational culture, drive what people really believe and do and how they act, and make the company, for better and for worse, what it truly is. To gather those stories, you must be as honest as an anthropologist, not try to do it surreptitiously, because people only tell the real stories to people who have gained and earned their trust. Snowden has developed very sophisticated and rigorous processes for doing so, which he details in his ‘masterclass’ called Using Narrative in Organisational Change,, which you can now buy on CD-ROM.

In Thomas King’s book The Truth About Stories, King argues that if you want to change a culture, you need to change its story, because that’s all a culture is. I don’t know that Snowden would disagree, but he would argue, I think, that changing an organization’s real stories is not so easy. That’s why mission statements don’t work — they’re wishful thinking, myths that management would like to believe everyone buys and is motivated by, but really aren’t. If you’re in management, he says, you don’t change the stories, he says, you understand them, then you act on them, and then you make them your own, retelling them in your own way so that you show the people in the front lines of the organization that you understand the real culture of the organization (and the real problems of front-line workers). In so doing you harness the astonishing power of ‘true’ stories.

Snowden is acutely aware of the overt class distinctions in Britain that make trust, and hence collecting stories, hard to achieve. While some of us in Europe and North America might argue that our class distinctions are not as formidable barriers as they are in the UK, I think this would be a mistake. Americans, I have observed, make a great effort to pretend that class distinctions don’t exist or are permeable, by allowing everyone to use first names, for example, when in fact the hierarchies are at least as strict as they are in the UK. The only real difference is that the determinants and clues of status are subtler — a bit more tied to wealth and the circles you move in and a bit less pre-determined by heredity. But trust is still deepest peer-to-peer and extremely hard to earn and sustain between management (or their henchman consultants and head-office lackeys) and front-line people. That is perhaps why management is in a constant quandary over decentralizing — it clearly improves productivity, innovativeness, morale and work effectiveness, but it allows people that management doesn’t really trust more control and autonomy, and perhaps even allows them to develop — heaven forbid — their own organizational culture. The reality, as Snowden argues, is that management is never in charge of organizational culture, that people behave the way they do partly because they’ve learned it’s the most effective way to do their unique job and partly in their own self-interest, and not because it’s in the procedure manual or the role description or aligned with the mission statement or the strategic plan.

Once you have collected the true stories in an unbiased manner (Snowden carefully explains how to remove bias, so you don’t get ‘fed’ just what you want to hear or put your own personal ‘spin’ on the story), the next step is to act on them. Stories tell management important information about what works, and, more importantly, what doesn’t work, in the organization. A lot of stories are about how people have solved problems that management hasn’t addressed, or which management has in fact created. These are often very comical or very heroic stories that not only have important messages for management, but illustrate exemplary behaviour that management may not realize it’s not rewarding, or actually inhibiting. It is critical, Snowden says, to make sure you understand the stories, and to collect and organize and ponder a lot of stories, before charging in and making changes that misconstrue the organizational culture, impede rather than help, and destroy forever the trust that the story-gatherer built up to capture this critical information.

And finally, once management has acted carefully and conscientiously on the learnings from the stories, they can actually make these stories their own, not by retelling them in the same words and context as they heard them (that would be disingenuous, a form of intellectual property theft), and not by appropriating them and making models and heroes of their protagonists (that could make the poor protagonists look like head office plants), but by conveying the same messages and lessons with stories from their own personal work context. Crafting such stories is a complex, rigorous and skillful process, and explaining this process takes up much of Snowden’s ‘masterclass’ time. There are different types of stories, like fables, myths and viruses, each with a different purpose and different construction (the course provides templates of each). Even more important is the testing of stories by telling and having others retell them until they are perfected. The impact of an executive telling employees a real story about the organization, credibly and powerfully, can be profound, even transformational. Just imagine — instead of the boss telling his/her people what to do, and evaluating them on his/her perception of their ‘performance’ in doing so, picture the boss explaining that he/she understood exactly why his/her people were doing what they were doing, and offering constructive ideas on how management could make the employee’s job easier and more effective. Management supporting the staff instead of the other way around. Hey, I know it’s a 90s idea and is out of fashion again these days, but stories, properly collected and interpreted by trained KM practitioners, can make it possible.

I hope Dave won’t object to my sharing one of his stories to illustrate this — it’s hard to write about stories without at least one example. He describes a group of public service utility workers who are subjected to a consultant’s efficiency review, which leads to them being given fewer work breaks and being given networked PCs to allow them to save time travelling into the office for paperwork between jobs. What the consultant didn’t realize (and what the careful collection of stories finally revealed) was that these workers shared vital information about how to do their jobs properly during these work breaks and office visits, and this information either couldn’t (because it’s highly contextual and needs conversation to convey effectively) or wouldn’t (because of the lack of trust of how stuff posted publicly might be used by management) be captured in databases or messages on their new PCs. So the workers found a surreptitious place for unofficial work breaks and a surreptitious place for ‘offline’ documentation of information they wanted to share with peers, ‘working around’ the consultant’s well-meaning but wrong-headed and dysfunctional change proposals. [Dave makes this into a long and wonderful story with a brilliant punch line, a resolution in which management finally learns from this mistake and turns it to astonishing advantage, and since I’m not telling a story here, I won’t spoil it — get the CD-ROM to hear the story completely and properly.] But the point is that the organizational culture is what it is, and usually for a good reason, and it’s vital to understand that culture by collecting the stories that reveal it, before you try to change processes or behaviour, or the change effort will inevitably fail, as almost every organizational change effort does.

I got out of the KM business last December, and since then I’ve toyed with the idea of becoming a new-age KM or PKM consultant, but then decided I’d had enough of this well-intentioned but endlessly-struggling discipline. But I recognize that there’s still important KM work that could and should be done. While I agree that PKM needs better tools much more than it needs process improvement consulting, I still think there is much promise in Personal Productivity Improvement as an offshoot of KM. And now Dave has convinced me that the exercise of capturing and interpreting and acting on an organization’s real stories would be worthwhile, especially for large organizations. But I think calling it Cultural Anthropology or Story-Gathering is a non-starter — try to sell CEOs something with that woolly a name these days and you’ll starve. What could we call it that would be accurate and still compelling to CEOs who don’t, yet, get what it’s all about?

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  1. Some interesting stuff here. I completely agree with you on the class issue. When you see CEO’s making millions of dollars in bonuses and employees getting no pay raise or worse, being laid off you clearly have a class discrepency.Personally I feel managements primary goal should be to keep the employee morale high. Happy employees are productive employees. This means listening to employees, understanding their needs, and giving them what they want. Sure, if you cut peoples breaks they will work longer but will they work better?One of the most successful software companies is also one of the best companies to work for. The SAS Institute ( The things that SAS does for its employees are just unbelievable. They go beyond the employee exercise room and other more typical perks. They have on site day care, tennis courts, a health care center with 3 doctors (free for employees), a sevice center to change the oil in your car, and numerous other perks. SAS employees are treated well. SAS management helps employees to manage their day to day lives as well as their work lives and these perks aren’t just for management. It is very much one large family with little or no class structure. As a result there is an immense level of trust between the employees. If employees trust management (and feel management cares about them) they will follow managements lead (even the mission statements).In some companies the employees feel they are busting their butt working hard just to see their hard work making management rich. This is a morale killer. Cutting employee breaks or making employees work overtime certainly does not mean more productive employees. Happy employees are productive employees.So while story gathering is valuable I feel it is only valuable as a tool for evaluating the success of making your employees happy. I came across this article ( about Dell the other day and found it quite interesting and somewhat relates to what I am getting at. In 2001 a survey indicated severe employee discontent. CEO Michael Dell and President Kevin B. Rollins quickly diagnosed the problem (Dell is an extreme introvert which was at the root of many problems) addressed the problem and once again earned the trust and understanding of the employees. The story is a good one and worth reading.The story also reminds me that often the best way to gain respect and trust (and thus the ability to lead) is to admit fault and the best way to lose respect and trust is to act perfect or superior to everyone else.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    David: I’m glad to hear SAS is the exception to the rule. A company in our area, Husky Injection Molding, is another one. But I’ve worked for, or known people who work for, many large companies listed on the ‘best companies to work for’ list and most of them don’t live up to their press (some of them even bribe their employees to rate their employer high so they qualify for these lists). I agree that making employees happy is an effective management objective; too bad most managers are more concerned with making shareholders happy. As for Dell, my recent experience with the company is the absolute opposite — not only are they not obsessed with quality, they have build elaborate mechanisms to block aggrieved customers from getting satisfactory resolution to their problems. I’ll be blogging about this soon, and it will be interesting to see if Dell (who I’ll copy on my post, if I’m able to dig up an address to send my complaint to — there is none on their website) responds.So what do you think we should call this story-gathering-and-evaluation process? So far I’ve had e-mails suggesting Metaphor Management and Cultural Expression (though they may have been tongue-in-cheek).

  3. Ahhh, but Dell is the best at what they do. Selling computers while being cheap and efficient in the process. Being obsessed with quality is not one of their goals (if you want quality buy a Mac). This means Dell offers better pre-sale service than post sale service. But you can’t deny their success. I also suspect that big corporate buyers (the core of their business) would get better service than an average joe like you or I.You and your readers may have noticed automobile manufacturers (mostly the big 3) going down the same route. They give huge up front incentives for you to purchase their vehicles but when it comes to warranty work they get stingy and you have to fight with them to get warranty work done. Plus on non-warrenty work they charge up to 50% more than other independent auto shops. If they don’t get you now they will get you later.Husky Injection is a good example. I grew up close to their head office and plant and they had a good reputation in the community as well as with their employees. They have also been very successful business wise. What is interesting is that Husky is a public company (unlike SAS which is private) and private companies are usually primarily focused on the bottom line from quarter to quarter and often employee moral gets lost in the process.I’ll through out another name. Mark Cuban. Cuban has lead a few startups including and is probably best known as being the outspoken owner of the Dallas Mavericks of the NBA. What I think makes Cuban successful is that he is human. He has strenghts. He has faults. He mingles with employees. He cares. He is not just some guy with a corner office creating mission statements. People can identify with him and he with them. He’s human, not a figurehead.Oh, another example came to mind. Jack Welch. Now Jack is known for a lot of things but one of the things he implemented while at GE was reverse mentoring. When he started to learn about the internet he realized he and his management team knew little about it. What he did was hire young people to mentor management on what the internet is all about and as a result management was better able to make use of the internet both internally and externally to advance GE’s business. All of these examples really come down to management better understanding ‘the other class’ if you will. Bringing together employees and management so they better understand each other.So, with that in mind, how about we call the process “Management Humanization Process” or “Management Education and Humanization Process”.

  4. Jason Jystad says:

    I have to chime in on the Dell mention. I am one of their “big corporate clients” and I recieve absolutely abysmal service. On top of that, I am a consultant that is responsible for recomending hardware regularly and I am no longer fully comfortable recomending Dell to my clients. That is how bad their service has been.I am currently researching alternate options for both myself and my clients.

  5. Dave,Not to play down the importance of capturing stories from within however I rather think capturing them from outside the organization are more effective. Particularly where customers are involved in supplying them. That requires the blogs or systems to be set up in a way so they facilitate the capture of stories. Thus stories have value when they represent the value net.Similarly there is a famous quote “when a manager comes to me with a problem — I ask him to tell me a story” Stories accelerate communication. They also allow us to test out different ideas in a safe context. Afterall they are only stories.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Stuart: Absolutely. I remember in the 1990s being told that the Japanese *never* included customers in their ‘focus groups’ and ‘circles’ because they fully expected all the information about customers could also be gleaned from talking to front-line people that interacted with them. I always thought that was a bit presumptuous. Two things I can’t figure out: (a) why when everyone seems to agree stories are important so few of us seem able to either capture them or tell them well, and (b) stories are powerful and memorable, but when you look at them carefully, they’re not very good literature — why is that and what does that say about literature?

  7. David Jones says:

    I’d like someone to tell me what a “best practice” is. One or two examples if you would please.

  8. andrew says:

    Interesting reading and learning for me, folks. Tather than comment on what i see you are insightful on, i will simply add what i donn’t see get a mention if you look at this whole subject with a broad enough vision. The human unconscious, (subconscious), and the role that plays. I am really wondering about the value of ‘capturing’ people’s ‘dreams’, ‘visions’ and so on as expressed by, well, their dreams and visions. Sort of getting on level below the tacit stiff of Michael Polanyi. “We know momre than we can tell”. Would that not be an instrument, a golden thread into the thinking, feeling, actioning ‘culure’ of any organizational field?warmest wishes from the hinterlands of OxfordshireAndrew J Campbell

  9. andrew says:

    Interesting reading and learning for me, folks. Rather than comment on what i see you are insightful on, i will simply add what i don’t see get a mention, if you look at this ‘whole subject’ with a broad enough vision. The human unconscious, (subconscious), and the role that plays. I am really wondering about the value of ‘capturing’ people’s ‘dreams’, ‘visions’ and so on as expressed by, well, their dreams and visions. Sort of getting on level below the tacit stuff of Michael Polanyi. “We know more than we can tell”. Would that not be an instrument, a ‘golden thread’ into the thinking, feeling, and actioning in the ‘culure’ of any ‘organizational field’?warmest wishes from the hinterlands of OxfordshireAndrew J Campbell

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