The Value and Practicality of the Narrative

Practical Application of the Narrative

Operational Tacit

My cousin is medical student studying in one of the worlds best medical schools. The time-tested and effective best practice in medicine is to teach students by way of books, labs, peer-to-peer, mentoring, coaching and discovery. Consider that educators are not limited by these mechanisms but these are common tools they leverage. The discovery aspect of the education becomes most important as the students enter their medical residency. The student’s experience and awareness of the realities in medical practice become real at this moment. It is the point in their journey where reality sets in and they are actively gaining a tacit understanding of their world.

As part of this experience, my cousin was sent to an emergency trauma center for a few weeks. The hours were long and erratic. One of her first experiences in the center happened not long after her arrival. As she stood in the hallway with one of her student partners, the doors flung open and medical staff were running down the hallway pushing two gurneys. The staff all the while working as a high performance team yelling to each other and coordinating activities as they ran down the hall. My cousin looked over to her friend and said regarding the two gurneys together “I wonder if that is one person or two”

Beyond those words there lives a rush of adrenaline, fear, hope, wonder and an internal experience that can only be described in such a way that it scrapes at our tacit understanding. We understand the idea of jumping out of an airplane or being in a war like situation but through discovery and our own experience we gain the knowledge that informs our hearts along with our minds.

The Story in the End and the Beginning.

The narrative is the connection of events. The connection of events as spoken or written tells a story but not THE story. The power of the narrative is the contextual explanation of the relationship between things. We understand things as stories and this is how we rationalize our world. The narrative as words spoken or written is an important part of our humanity and our effectiveness in communication.

The Common Threshold

The narrative can be practical, effective and for purpose. Every job role has purpose and this purpose is aligned with a greater vision, objective and scope of activities. The narrative in use can be the starting point for these activities.

Practical Use

For every role or activity the narrative can be the starting point. The starting point is the key to understanding the who, what, when, where and potential for how (over time) at a given period of time.

Narrative Activity

The basis of a high level summary that identifies who, what and why. These are given based on a period of time and understanding of a situation.


George is part of the cable group, the cable group pulls cable for the cable company. The cable is used to support internal and external customers of the organization (Organization x). Organization x is a media company that is focused on the distribution of video and audio services and channels for millions of customers across region x and around the globe.

Understanding where George fits creates a sense of clear purpose for George but also allows for a value mapping of his role to the greater purpose of the organization.

The cable group is part of the infrastructure team. The infrastructure team manages physical assets based on new cable requirements and operational maintenance considerations.

The cable group enables Organization x to grow and serve new markets by creating the physical channels and conduits of connectivity. The cable group allows Organization x to maintain operational excellence by maintaining the infrastructure and supporting current physical network topologies.

The story of George in scope.

George represents every person in context of their role. This person is a performer and actor, he has value and this value needs to be understood. The role and context of the role is the list of things that George may do.

1)Maintain tools

2)Project Planning

3)Repair, create and install cable and cable channels.

The narrative can help clarify and express with more definition the stories within the activities in the list. The time it takes to capture the story is an investment in the future relative to business and knowledge continuity. The job description is only the list but George is the person and his work is much more than a list or process. It is a composition of these patterns interwoven by relationships to form the story.

At the end of a story we learn through reflection.   Our daily lives are filled with short stories that we don’t have the time or take the time to reflect on under most normal conditions.   Although, there are times that we do but we may not write these down or share them any further.  “Honey, how was your day?”  The end of the day can cap a chapter or maybe it is just a pause.

The point is that people choose to reflect on narratives most often when there is a perception that the story is over.   From a business perspective, we can ask to reflect at any time in the story to understand what is happening and participate as an action agent or actor ourselves.  In a lot of ways there isn’t a need to say everything out loud all the time but if we never ask, we never know.

The proper care and feeding of an organization.

George is set to retire. Over the past 36 years, he worked as a tradesman in Organization x as a “Cable Master” he could have written the book on cable but over the 36 years he never had time. He never had time and most folks didn’t know anything about what George actually did. Human resources had George classified as Senior Lineman Cable Technician. They looked at their records and realized that he was set to retire last year at 35 years of service but due to economic conditions he never put a retirement package in.

George was good an employee, he was effective and impactful in his work. Due to one condition or another, George must retire.

In 3 hours you are to capture 36 years of his work..

Consider the framework of many companies today in terms of employee engagement and understanding.    If Organization x is an average company leadership may have actually engaged with George concerning his performance, activities, role and responsibilities 35 times.     We could say that they had 35 opportunities to capture the narrative or reshape the story.   On most occasions over my career,  I have seen managers / leaders try to find ways to just get the performance assessment over with.  Even in the case where assessments were 360 degrees or converted to an ongoing activity, they are always something to avoid.

Now over the 35 opportunities of the annual assessment process which we could recognize of the story of this year past,  the narrative is left and the story stays with George.  It is interesting to consider that companies always tell stories of their foundation and history but they never attend to that history as it lives.  It is only upon reflection of the leadership of the company.   If these same organizations leveraged the time they have to engage their staff, capture the narratives and share the purpose, imagine how much more rich the organization could be.  Also, if we knew more from George over the past 35+ years, we would know much more about his contribution as a person of value and of what we need to know and do moving ahead to maintain and grow.

 Practical Behavior

We are here for a very short period of time.   That is true of every person everywhere.    Our history and heritage is important and understanding how we connect and relate in a given period of time offers understanding that will help prevent mistakes or benefit us in the future.   We have an opportunity to trade a little time on a daily, monthly, weekly, yearly basis to close chapters and reflect on many stories / narratives in our world.

The explicit capture and collection could lead to codification or an organized understanding of who, what, when, where, why and how an organization functions.   The benefits are endless.

Take a look here a good place to start!


Collecting Knowledge isn’t Easy

Being Human

Qualia (from the Latin, meaning “what sort” or “what kind”; Latin and English singular “quale”, pronounced KWAHL-ay) are most simply defined as qualities or feelings, like redness, as considered independently of their effects on behavior.

In more philosophical terms, qualia are properties of sensory experiences by virtue of which there is something it is like to have them.  (

Feeling Complexity

I have a memory of being a child living in an apartment.   My mother was out for some reason and it was a cold winter day.   I heard her putting the key into the door and since the door had multiple locks I jumped up and ran to the door to help.   When the door opened up I felt a blast of cold air as she grabbed me and hugged me.  I could smell the scent of rain and snow mixed in with her normal mom smell.   The cool feeling of her outside jacked was cold to the touch but warm to my heart.    This is one of my favorite memories but it is truly hard to describe.

Collecting Knowledge

Everything we can manage is the result of something we can produce.   We can suppress emotions but we can’t really manage them.   We can suppress our reaction to something as long as we can condition our minds to respond to input based on practices of conditioning.   In other words,  if you are boxer,  you may have a condition where you tolerate more pain but we technically can’t manage it.

A collection of knowledge is a “best attempt” to get information about something.    Imagine if we sought to collect all of the knowledge you have, how could this be done?   You don’t even have access to all of your knowledge.    In fact, we rationalize the things we don’t know by addressing them with faith.   I don’t mean religion when I say faith, I mean a rule of expectation.   These rules of expectation allow us to perform tasks.   They are short cuts that our brains use to be effective.

When collecting knowledge, we have to unearth the short cuts. 

When you turn on your computer, you have an expectation that it will perform as you expect.  You may not possess all of the knowledge in the device, all of the knowledge that the device is connected with and/or the knowledge to make the device itself function.

If you wanted to collect knowledge about the device, you would seek out all of these things and more.   In a way, it doesn’t make sense.    What a lot of people say at that point of complication is “it is what it is.”  Why?  Because we can only manage so much and tolerate so much, there are thresholds that we should consider.

We might consider the term Knowledge Management a false harmony.   We can see an explicit list of things in a collection but it would be at best faith to consider that we could attain an understanding and rationalization of this list of things.

Where’s Waldo

Why are we looking for Waldo?

What is the purpose of Waldo?

Even though there is a lot of information here,  the knowledge to find Waldo in fact lives outside of the picture in your head.   I will find Waldo either before or after you find Waldo.  In fact, the only way I could find Waldo faster than you for certain is if I had this picture before you and I know where he is.    One thing is for sure for most of us, we have faith and belief that Waldo is in fact in this image.   What if he isn’t there?  The shortcut of belief that Waldo is in the picture allows us to set the stage to spend more time looking for Waldo.   I could present you with the answer of where Waldo is or you could go on the learning journey of discovery and find Waldo yourself.

It all boils down to the fact that it is all complicated.    We could even consider that depending on our level of tolerance for frustration and patience that you or I may never find Waldo.

Knowledge Management Considerations

We could consider that since we have the technology to collect but we don’t have the capacity to yet understand the wholeness of a collection, that we still need to consider and maintain the value of our subject matter experts.

Knowledge has the most fidelity at the personal level.   We should consider that any overall Knowledge Management practice will always end with something to collect and someone to maintain or interpret the collection. As opposed to gaining the collection as an holistically explicit thing unto itself.

Outcome Based Knowledge Management

plantThe Secret

No need to search through my blog or search the internet for the best of the best in KM to learn the secret.  I am going to share it with you right here and now.  It is called “communication.”

To share information and gain common understanding we need to communicate.   We need to communicate in stories so that we have context and we need to communicate in process so that we can find steps to accomplish a task, a goal or an outcome.   I realize that you know these things and that I am close to losing you except for one part…  If communication is the key to KM and communication is essentially the key to success in every area of life, why doesn’t it happen?

It is hard to communicate.  In business there is fear of the unknown.  At home, there is fear of feeling a certain way or being embarrassed.  There are plenty of reasons that hinder our ability to communicate.   There are also a lot of reasons that we think we are communicating when in fact, we aren’t.

Outcome Based

We know that we need to share data, information, knowledge and leverage the wisdom of our workforce.   We know that we need to gain as much as we can from people by asking questions to gain more context and more explicit knowledge.    The reality is that people work best in small teams and trusted communities and environments.  People work best when they can provide feedback without fear.   People need purpose and feedback to work towards their potential.  Once they think they have reached their potential, they need to realize more.

The measure of a good KM program is a shift in culture.   The measure is how they feel and the overall sentiment.    Everything else in terms of sharing and productivity will be in flux and will change on a regular basis  but the key is how people feel.

In 1999-2000 time frame Gateway computer was still leading the pack in computer sales.  Ted Waitt was essentially cashing in his chips and stepping down from operations.   He co-founded Gateway computers and he said “You’ve got a friend in the business.”   Ted basically stepped back and let Jeff Weitzen run the company.

The astounding rise of Gateway came to a crashing halt in 2000 when the global PC industry fell into its worst slump ever. Gateway was hit particularly hard because of its greater reliance on the consumer and small business markets–the hardest hit sectors–and because of questionable management decisions. Soon after taking over, Weitzen began pushing aside old-time Gateway managers and instituted a number of new policies that hurt not only morale but also the bottom line. Weitzen also muddied the company’s distribution strategy by launching deals to sell Gateway PCs through such channels as the OfficeMax chain and the QVC home shopping network. He also opened up 100 more Gateway retail stores in the United States. When archrival Dell instituted a price war in an ultimately successful attempt to grab more market share during the PC downturn, Gateway took a heavy blow and ended up suffering a fourth-quarter 2000 net loss of $94.3 million. For the year, net profits fell 26 percent, to $316 million, a figure later revised downward to $241.5 million. Gateway’s stock fell 75 percent during 2000, from $72.06 per share to $17.99.”

I worked for Gateway for a minute during this time.   I was on the call floor with the online technicians.   It was truly a tragedy.  I watched people who loved Gateway fall apart and when I discussed this with management as a new comer they simply stated that the operating model changed and that everyone would have to deal with it.

Interestingly enough, there was a knowledge management system that technicians created outside of the Gateway system.  One technician built a website that captured lessons learned and best practices.  He had step by step help systems that were written by other technicians as well.   It was driven by passion and it was very good.   Gateway banned use of the site after they discovered its existence.

I didn’t have a measurement vehicle but I knew that Gateway was in trouble by how it acted as an organization and how the people around me felt.   I went to my manager and discussed my concerns.   He looked at me and essentially stated that Gateway was in good condition and that it would do well in the near future and beyond.    I could see that they were blind and this is where communication failed.   I turned in my resignation immediately after that conversation and within a few months, Gateway closed their Hampton, Virginia call center due to economic downturn.

Clear outcome based on organizational behavior.    Ted came back to save the day in March 2001 but it was too late, the organization was polluted and they never recovered for a lot of reasons.

Fitting this in to KM

Communication is an activity and it starts everyday when you get up.   It isn’t a sport that you watch,  it isn’t a game that you play.   It is real and to have a good knowledge based program, you have to read, talk, write, listen, love and work out loud.   You have to think out loud and you have to engage your circles.   You have to lead with clarity of thought and be consistent in your words and definitions.  These must be aligned with your intent.    Your intent is further aligned with your organizational goals and outcome based initiatives.


No need to fail

Failure in small doses is fine but we don’t aim to fail, we aim to succeed.  If we do, we can be happy to make a mistake, a mistake is not a failure.  It is a learning event and we have been successful in our attempt to eliminate an option.   If we are listening and learning, if we have the right people being open, honest and clear, if we have the conversations around solving root causes as opposed to treating symptoms, KM efforts will succeed.


Everyone won’t come to the party

That is fine.   Not everyone will always want to participate but at the end of the day, we all have to answer to Maslow.   If we find the right approach with people as groups and as individuals we will share and learn and that is success in KM.