Storytelling as a channel for sharing knowledge Part 1 of 4

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“The one who tells the stories rules the world” (Hopi Indian proverb).

Invictus, the film based on the book that John Carlin wrote about Nelson Mandela, tells an enlightening story about an intelligent decision made by the recently deceased South African leader to avoid losing knowledge. To the whole world’s surprise, the day after being sworn in as South Africa’s first black President, he asked the following of several collaborators of the outgoing government (that upheld apartheid): “Look, we come from the countryside. We don’t know how to manage a complex entity like the Presidency of South Africa. We need the help of experienced people like you. I ask you, please, to remain at your post.” It is calculated that in the USA, 10,000 workers retire every day. We know that it is impossible to stop these people leaving organizations, but it is feasible to anticipate and mitigate the impact of their loss. One of the simplest mechanisms is by using stories to share knowledge.

On Tuesday, February 17, 2009, at around 17:15 hours, Emma Velasco, two years of age, the youngest daughter of the Finance Minister and a well-known television presenter, fell into the swimming pool at a summer house and started drowning. Several minutes later, her Nanny, noticing the situation, jumped into the pool to rescue her and tried to reanimate her using first aid. After a few minutes of great confusion, the little girl was finally transferred to a hospital we she was admitted in a serious condition due to asphyxiation by immersion. The news held the attention of all the media and deeply affected the entire country. Emma spent several days in the ICU between life and death, while her anguished parents received innumerable shows of affection and support. After a few days of great tension, Emma recovered and her life was saved.

If I ask 100 random people what they understand by Knowledge Management, a large percentage would have serious difficulties for answering the question. Therefore, the first problem I have to deal with is: How many people are interested in Knowledge Management and know what it is? And, how can I explain what it’s about and make sure they understand me? We must convince ourselves that, in truth, nobody listens to us. Everyone focuses on their own concerns and time is both the most precious and the scarcest asset. People don’t need more information: they want to find solutions for their problems. After giving hundreds of talks, I know firsthand that people have great trouble remembering what they hear, and all that effort has very little impact on their actions, their decisions and, finally, their work.

When you need to present an idea, a product, a project, a concept to someone, whether a single person or an auditorium, you need to be aware that you only have a few seconds to capture their interest and, if you don’t, you won’t get a second chance. If you want to have an impact on and connect to someone, there is no better vehicle than a good story. Stories capture people’s attention. They involve and create bonds between the teller and the listener. Therefore, when I have to talk about Knowledge Management, the best possible strategy is to tell a story like Emma’s, which is really a Knowledge Management problem. Why was Emma drowning? Evidently it was a lack of knowledge, as she doesn’t know how to swim. And why was her Nanny able to save her? Because she did have knowledge: She knew how to swim, and she also knew first aid, a detail that was very important for saving Emma’s life and avoiding permanent brain damage. If I had been the one to save her, the outcome would have been different, since I have no idea of first aid. Knowledge is the experience that lets you make decisions and act upon them: in short, it is what lets you solve problems. Everything you do depends on the knowledge you have, and all the knowledge you have depends in turn on what you’ve learnt throughout your life.

Part 1 of 4.

Javier Martínez Aldanondo
Manager for Catenaria Knowledge Management