Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Reading :: Storytelling in Organizations

Originally posted: Tue, 11 Jan 2005 19:48:58

Storytelling in Organizations : Why Storytelling Is Transforming 21st Century Organizations and Management

by John Seely Brown, Stephen Denning, Katalina Groh, Laurence Prusak

Amazon.com emails me periodically with book suggestions based on my past purchases. This suggestion sounded particularly interesting, based partially on the subject matter and partially on the lead author. John Seely Brown is, of course, the visionary former director of Xerox Research. The other authors are less familiar to me but similarly placed: Stephen Denning is the former Program Director for Knowledge Management at the World Bank; Katalina Groh writes, produces, and directs independent films and documentaries; and Laurence Prusak was with IBM Global Services. All but Groh are now independent consultants. Three guesses what they consult on.

The book is categorized as "Business/Management," and that's appropriate, since the book reads like others in that genre. It's frequently lighter than air, telling breezy stories about storytelling, and I often found myself wanting it to be more concrete and assertive about techniques, findings, etc. Citations are almost nonexistent, and the authors evidently have very different ideas and approaches to narrative. The lack of unity and detail has to do with where these chapters originated: the four authors originally delivered them as talks under the auspices of the Smithsonian Associates in 2001. Each chapter ends with a reflective section in which the author revisits the talk in 2004. As a result, we get a very brief and general overview of each author's version of storytelling circa 2001, with an even briefer and more general reflection of how their understanding has changed since then. It's a lazy way to put together a book. Since the authors all have an interest in promoting their own ideas on stories -- rather than coming up with a coherent, er, story -- the book seemed more like a promotional tract for the authors' other books and films and consulting services. Again, it fits into "Business/Management" rather than more substantial scholarly, philosophical, or methodological work.

Nevertheless, that promotional work is an important service in that it lets us know what takes are out there, what resources we can consult, and how stories are being used in organizations (generally speaking). And it's a quick read. If this book had maintained the general, promotional tone through 400 pages, I would have felt cheated; but at 178 pages, it is readable in a couple of sittings or in snatches between projects. It's useful as a brief introduction to narrative in organizations and could be paired with more substantial texts in an undergraduate class.

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