Storytelling: Taking stock

Stories have been the rage in the knowledge field lately. Hold on… Stories have been the rage in the field of human beings for ever! KM or not, it doesn’t matter, stories are part of our hard-wiring. We were born for stories. Which is what makes this stock-taking post quite a daunting challenge. And yet, recent discussions on the KM4Dev mailing list about process documentation and the use of stories reminded me of the everlasting importance of storytelling in the specific field of KM. And so I figured I could kick my lazy arse and graft for a stock-taking post on another phoenix (1) of the KM field.

Storytelling, a powerful learning and sharing KM technique

Give me a play, give me a picture, give me a story and I will understand your complex nonsense (FlickR photo credits: Normalityrelief)

But first off, here is what this list of resources could look like and you’ll understand why I hesitated about writing this stock-taking post. Tim Sheppard’s website has not been updated since 2003. I’m almost tempted to say “thank goodness for it!” as my mind starts boggling. Instead, I’m focusing here on a short series of (PDF) resources that offer practical guidance on how to use storytelling in knowledge-focused work, primarily in development work, but not only. These resources all include a tiny bit of theory and mostly some practical tips, tools and templates. The list is not exhaustive, it is not pretentious, but I hope it offers some useful links. It was certainly helpful for me to compile this list for future reference.

So here are some nuggets hidden in the river of web knowledge…

SDC’s guide to using story and narrative tools in development co-operation (practitioner’s version) (Source: Swiss Development Cooperation /

This 24-page practical guide (from 2006) offers an excellent introduction to storytelling, explaining the difference between stories and reports, introducing exercises and questions to tease out stories, examining the structure of stories, offering checklists for the different parties involved in storytelling, giving a useful overview of different story techniques and finally a troubleshooting guide.

Like most resources from the SDC, this guide is neat and rather practical, leaving fuzzy conversations at the door. It really is meant for development practitioners to use storytelling in their work in various handy ways. The attitude is, as ever, not prescriptive but rather indicative, yet offering useful kick-starts for those needing more guidance. A must in this list.

The leaders’ guide to storytelling (Source:

One of the storytelling leaders, certainly in the field of development cooperation, Stephen Denning has written a number of important books on the topic (see the who is who below). This practical guide for leaders is a 50-slide presentation of one of his books (this resource’s title) and offers a great glimpse of human psychology and liking for storytelling. It goes further in explaining the process of springboard storytelling which is geared towards action. This is only a sketchy introduction of the process but gives good ideas about the power of stories and some process to set up storytelling. Jumpboard storytelling is mentioned in other resources in this list. This resource is a bit older than the rest (around 2005) but his book is still a reference (find more info about it and buy it here) and I couldn’t do justice to this post without mentioning Steve Denning’s work.

Ultimate guide to Anecdote circles A practical guide to facilitating storytelling and story listening (Source:

Anecdote has long been an organisation specialised in storytelling, as you would expect. This 28-page guide, oops e-book, from 2008 sets the scene of corporate storytelling following the infamous but bang-on travelling metaphor. The specific storytelling technique used here is the anecdote circle. The great value of this resource is the simplicity of its language, the practical stories offered throughout to support the theory and the interesting research and other material backing the use of stories at work (for those moments when you try to justify stories against hard metrics). And it is rare enough that a private consultancy firm offers its methods out in the open, so we can only encourage them in this direction. The e-book also contains a handful of useful references, although none is more recent than 2005. Then again, new is not always better.

If you like the Anecdote approach, they released a more recent (2009) 4-page white paper on storytelling in the business world. It is available here. And their website is packed with other creative story stuff!

Storytelling, in the knowledge sharing toolkit (Source:

The advantage of working wikily isto keep the content fresh. This entry of the KS toolkit is indeed updated regularly (last in February 2011 with a link to a recent KMers’ Twitter chat on storytelling and KM). This resource informs us how to use storytelling in knowledge sharing/knowledge management work, particularly in workshops. It includes a handy story template, some ideas to introduce storytelling in workshops, some materials required, an indicative method to follow and some examples and further resources. Although this summary page is not the most comprehensive out there, it was set up more recently, and you’ve got to like the wiki attitude on this one.

The KS toolkit is a joint initiative by the ICT-KM programme (of the CGIAR), FAO, UNICEF and KM4DEV. It’s a rather rich resource portal pulling together a number of practical tools and approaches to knowledge sharing and knowledge management in development work.

And (almost) finally: StoryCorps’ story instruction guide for great questions (Source:

Stories are very nicely teased out through interviews and this 4-page guide just seemed to bring a lot of useful considerations for conducting interviews and capturing excellent quality stories. I particularly like the list of ‘great questions’ that appear on page 3 which really could be used anywhere, and I confess I also selected this resource because it was released on the national day of listening (StoryCorps came up with it: in the US it’s thus November 26). That day really is a great occasion to celebrate. Listening is critical in today’s multicultural workplace, as the Harvard Business Review reminds us again in this very recent blog post. As for StoryCorps, it is an independent nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives.

Finally, my fellow Tweeter Peter West graciously shared his resources on storytelling which contain (as of 22 March 2011) over 40 resources, some pay-for but also a great many free ones. I have to delve into quite a few of these resources for an updated version of this post. Enjoy it without guide for now.

Storytelling who is who

And finally, a new addition to my stock-taking series to crown this post: here are some influential KM peeps that you should not miss in the field of… storytelling (links to their Twitter profile).

  • Shawn Callahan – From Anecdote. The work introduced above shows the credit due to M. Anecdote. He writes and tweets about stories on a regular basis. You can also watch him on this video justifying the value of storytelling.
  • Stephen Denning – formerly working for the World Bank where he pioneered some storytelling work in the field of development and wrote seminal books about the ancient art of storytelling – as mentioned on his bio page. He has moved on to focus on innovation and leadership of late.
  • Dave Snowden – from Cognitive Edge. Dave Snowden has been working for a long time with narratives and is currently implementing the Cognitive Edge™ software across various domains to analyse patterns among stories. The intention here is a.o. to help quantify these patterns and generate quantitative information on qualitative data. If you wonder: Snowden is not among the references above because he has not have written practical papers or articles recently about the topic of storytelling in the field of development that I know of – though he certainly could.

Of course this list is far from exhaustive. I keep open for other suggestions and references. As ever, this is KM for me, and you?


(1) By phoenix I mean one of those discussion topics that keeps coming back because there are always new layers to discover and discuss about them.

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Question your education and educate your questions

About 10 days ago I came across this excellent article (in French, mind you) in Le Monde about 21st century education. The article was written by Michel Serres, one of the most influential (and interesting) philosophers in France nowadays. His main point is that formal education is completely out of synch with its time – or with the young people of its time.

This has to do with a combination of factors:

  • The pupils’ bodies and minds have changed: compared with previous generations, they live overwhelmingly in the city, have a long life expectancy, have no direct experience of war, have been the result of planned pregnancies and are living in multicultural settings.
  • Their attitude towards knowledge has changed:  they have access to a very long history, have very short attention spans and are formatted by constant direct advertising. They are multi-taskers but use a different part of their brain (using social media) than they would reading books. They have access to a wide mobile network at all times. They write differently and speak a language that has evolved much.
  • They have become individuals: their identity is no longer defined by large collective enterprises. Their couples are not working that well any more. But their realisation as individuals may be a good thing.
  • And we give them artefacts of another age for their education: buildings, classrooms, libraries, laboratories…

So what can we do asks Serres? Share knowledge? There is no knowledge to share – it’s all available there on the Internet. Knowledge is virtually shared with everyone, everywhere, all the time. We are awaiting a new age similar to the paideia (a pedagogical system) that ancient Greeks invented, or to the revolution of printing brought forth by the Renaissance. This leaves a lot of uneasy reflections for the teachers.

Question everything (photo credits: Dullhunk)

This article reflects perhaps particularly crucially one of the gaps that France is experiencing at the moment, though it is not the only country in this situation. What Serres calls for is a radically new way to think about education – one that is not about transferring knowledge in a box to a homogeneous group that assimilates it in one place. It is about transferring perspectives about knowledge and a thirst for questions.


This brings me to another excellent piece on the web, this time a blog post by Jack Uldrich (Unlearning 101) about 10 things worthy of teaching in Kindergarten. All his points are worthwhile but I particularly love his second point: Questions are better than answers. This is also the red thread of the IKM-Emergent paper about monitoring and evaluation of knowledge for development that we are just finalising these days: the trick of the matter is not the end point, the answer; it is all about the journey, the process, through questions. If we sharpen that capacity to question, we are that much closer to understanding a rapidly changing world and to connecting with others.

For children of tomorrow, it is not a matter of good or bad education, it is probably more a matter of survival. Indeed, education is not about filling a bucket with water, it’s about lighting a fire. Time for a stock-taking post on questions?

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Amis francophones, à vos stylos… KM4D journal French issue

I usually don’t blog in French but just wanted to mention that the December issue of the KM4Dev journal will be a special Francophone issue.

The call for contributions is out and welcomes any contribution (in French) until 1 June 2011. I have put that call for contribution on a special page:

Pass it on if you know Francophone folks doing interesting KM/KS work!

Learning with a sector

What is your most effective bet if you are trying to stimulate an entire set of institutions to continually share knowledge, learn together, improve decision-making and coordination?

At IRC we have been struggling with this question for a while and the answers are not obvious, their applications yet less so. We are still working on it under an overall banner of ‘sector learning’ (1). It is a rather odd concept since a sector (2) learns arguably as little as an organisation – and what is a sector anyways? Nonetheless this is the fuzzy starting point for our quest towards a better learning sector. And we have found ways to make it more practical.
We have been using mainly two approaches to accomplish sector learning:

  • Resource centre networks (knowledge networks offering independent information products and services to a range of institutions and promoting knowledge sharing and information management);
  • Learning alliances (multi-level multi-stakeholder processes aiming at using social learning to generate and apply innovative solutions for complex issues);

IRC's sector learning brochure - another one to be pimped this year!

2011 is the last year of our current Business Plan and therefore a crucial year to document our work – based on ongoing ‘process documentation’ (or process monitoring). It will be a crucial year to look into these two key approaches and understand better what works and what has not delivered as much as hoped.

A first workshop in December 2010 already helped us look at the resource centre network’s contribution to sector learning. On top of our list of issues came:

  • How to sustain commitment and interest from the institutions that are members of such knowledge networks?
  • How to ensure the sustainability (financially and otherwise) of such networks?
  • How to assess (and measure?) the relevance and outcomes of the work performed by resource centre networks?

These are only three of the various issues that we have to deal with and none takes a simple answer. We have a lot to learn about learning in a sector that is in a permanent crisis mode, whose organisations react too late to too many opportunities, where field staff really is not feeding back their crucial experiences to other levels and where donors and governmental agencies could integrate their frameworks and budgets a lot better.

So keep watching this space for more! And let me know if you’d like to join up thinking…


(1)    A brochure about sector learning – which needs to be updated is available on: Our thematic pages on sector learning are on:

(2)    In this case, the water, sanitation and hygiene – WASH – sector, but the challenge would arguably be similar for other fields of development.

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