Category Archives: interpreter

The Fallen

The Fallen was on BBC2 on Saturday night and it was privilege to watch. A tribute to British soldiers who’ve been killed in Afghanistan. The makers were almost invisible and inaudible as the brothers, sisters, parents, brothers-in-arms, commanders, wives of the fallen told their stories. Stories of individuals were spliced together with silence chronological rollcall, pieces of documentary and news, collections of shared moments of terrible grief, of funerals, the shrines left behind, the moment the news broke and so on. The smallest echo of background music tied things together, and at the end the voices and music fell silent and all you heard (and saw, then only heard) was the chipping of the stonemasons carving a memorial and that sound cut through to the very grieving of the soul.

As tributes, rituals and acts of memorial go, this was an honest testimony that reached beyond any private grief and brought the incredible acts of bravery of these young men and women right into a place where you had not choice but to listen, and look and feel, and feel fully what it means to live in this amazing, muddled democracy of our, and how we trash that privilege daily. It also showed how much we need private and collective rituals of remembrance.

I was very much reminded of Tony Parker , an oral historian who died in 1966, who gave his work and life over to making room for the voices of the marginalised and invisible. I first came across his work when I read a review of ‘May the Lord in his mercy say a prayer for Belfast’ and then tracked down everything I could, about lifers, lighthouse keepers, people who lived in a towerblock in North London. He had a way of being present and invisible and of just lightly twisting the words and shape of the stories so that there were small and shocking moments of surprise and realisation. No manipulation here, but a marriage of the best of raw voice and the honing that a storyteller can bring to it to help it be heard.

I was also reminded me of an as yet unblogged experience I had when I went to see Black Watch (which I did blog). This was Steve Mcqueen’s Queen and Country

Steve McQueen's tribute postage stamps

Steve McQueen's tribute postage stamps

Steve McQueen, in collaboration with 136 families whose loved ones have lost their lives in Iraq, has created a cabinet containing a series of facsimile postage sheets, each one dedicated to a deceased soldier.

\The simple brilliance of the idea of stamps as a container for remembrance, used as political statement about how little we seem able to honour our dead is something I’ve been carrying with me.

There’s a French word, aider, which we don’t but should have in English, which means to be an accomplice in something simply by witnessing it. Aiding and abetting should have that meaning. It’s the job of the teller, the artist, the author, the actor, I think, to create spaces of witnessing from which we cannot step back. The privilege of access to an audience brings with it the responsibility to engage that audience in witnessing and becoming responsible both for themselves and for what they see over which they can have some useful influence.

This is something I feel strongly and have still, frustratingly, fully to bring to bear in my own daily practice. But I will never give up trying.

Bridges & ditches

I walked up the footpath at the back of our land yesterday, to see the weather from a different place. The water was roaring down the stone gullies that have been dug out through the land, and hurtling down the path too. It is unstoppable.

Gullies running in orange alert weather in the Ardeche

Gullies running in orange alert weather in the Ardeche

At dinner with the neighbours last night we talked of the bewilderment of the summer tourist, who can make no sense of these great dry stone beds, with absurdly high bridges constructed over them. You need to winter here to understand, and then this Orange alert is making for weather rare even for the vrai Ardechois, born and bred to it.

We spent a long time, too, foraging for the right translation for combler la fosse, which in French is to fill in a ditch, to close a gap. In it’s context I went for building bridges, so with a twist of reconciliation, but in the dictionary afterwards it seems more likely it’s to bridge a gap. I wonder if there’s anything in the French effort to actually fill the gap, while the English blithely construct a bridge over it and leave it there? How high a bridge then.

Fred, who runs a supermarket near Toulouse, was talking about how easy it was, right from the beginning of the year, to detect the change in buying habits, although the sharp swing away from brands came in about May. Danone yoghurts down 9%, where before it was 3 freezer shelves stacked with President butter to one own brand, now it’s 2 and 2. Own brands have been winning out over the grandes marques for quite a while. For Fred, that’s fine, so long as he’s tuned early to the changes and can change his buying.

I was thinking about this in respect of some work on future story exercises I’m working on with Anecdote just now. Shawn, delightfully, uses William Gibson (science fiction writer)

The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed

Fred can see the future in the changed distribution of butter in his freezers, one tiny image which pretty much conjures up a whole picture of crumbling economies. Of course, for organisational visioning you’d like the picture to be rosier, in one way. But it is rosy too. The own brand comes into it’s own.

I wonder whether there’s something too in the ditch versus bridge difference. We’ve been imagining future stories as a way to build a bridge from the future to the present, using present anecdotes (Gibsons we’re calling them) about future signs as part of the construction materials. Perhaps we need to be thinking about filling in ditches, combler la fosse, rather than bridging a gap. Or perhaps we need to build very high bridges indeed, knowing that the winter rains will wash away lower ones.

Brothels in Bangladesh – a direct consequence of climate change

As I come to the shift of gear, the dreamy limbo of writing up the museums work we’ve been doing for the past few months and starting to clear a space to think about the work on horizon scanning and futures which hoves into few and will take up most of my thinking and unthinking space from February to July, I’m quite alert to tiny fragments which pack a punch. I’m finding a surprising amount in our mla database which seems to connect directly to the hsf thinking in ways that are almost frightening. For example I wrote recently about poetry as a kind of horizon scanner – the poetry library gets a surprising frontline view of what matters to people.Then in the Guardian this week I was startled by an article on the rise in prostitution in Bangladesh:

“The brothel opened 20 years ago, making it the newest and largest of the 14 recognised brothels in the country. It is set on the meeting point of two vast rivers, the Jamuna and the Ganges (known locally as the Padma), which makes this a very busy place to catch a ferry. Trucks carrying rice, jute, sugar cane and fish from the west and south-west of the country queue here for two or three days at a time to cross the river for the drive to the capital, Dhaka. In Bangladesh on a BBC World Service boat to look at the impact of climate change, I was surprised to find that an unexpected consequence of rising water levels is the growth in demand for prostitution. River erosion has meant the closure of some ferry berths, so men wait even longer to cross the river. And, while they wait, many of them pass the time in the company of Daulatdia’s women.”

We spent some time this week at a workshop imagining scenarios for mla relationship with business (banish mla as concept, replace it with a sense of extended learning places and resources essential to the rounded worker, then ‘backcast’ from that to the present day to see how one would achieve that symbiosis over, say, 20 years).

Anyway, my question for a couple of days has been, take a scenario (not good or bad, hopeful or unhopeful, just a confluence of circumstance) and imagine backwards from that circumstance how would would have forseen it in some way.So I’m interested in the idea of taking brothels (one can deconstruct brothel of course in quite a feminist way – poor endentured women with no prospects, men with too much time on their hands and not much inclination to do cultured things) in Bangladesh (low-lying land, under-resourced in flood management, having to react rather than act, most likely to be one of the frontiers where we witness the consequences of climate change, etc).But working back from brothels, Bangladesh, flooding, too few ferries, downtime. How might one, 10 years ago have forseen this thing? What kinds of horizon scanning might one have done in, say 1997? What kinds of different policies for prostitution and flood transportation might a reasonably accurate prognosis have led to?I think it might be interesting for our hsf governance work to come at it sideways, and find some unlikely events, from history and the present, and consider what a well-scanned intelligence process might have thrown up by way of a different policy path.What’s so interesting here is how little we prize the insights that people can bring from their daily witnessing. I’m witnessing a great deal of unlikely stuff because of where I sit. But I’m not a scanner or a futurist, and there’s no-one whose sleeve I can tug about most of it. I do it because it interests me and puts a bit of pep into my daily work. Think of all those scanners out there. If, instead of simply using people’s excess computing power to calculate space things,we used their witnessing power to help us see further, think of the changes that could bring about.

It happens a bit of course. Say the RSPB and birdwatching. There’s a model of participatory scanning that it’s worth looking more closely at, and I know Natural England so some interesting scanning using Cognitive Edge techniques. And it’s all trendy to talk about the wisdom of crowds. But I’m not talking about exactly any of that here. I think I’m talking about something a bit different that I’m trying to find and describe better.I’m off to read the Guardian and let it settle for a bit while I think about what it is I want to say next.

But before I do, a tiny, gorgeous little thing from my second visit to Louise Bougeois, accompanied by sketches of skyscapers as people – perhaps three of them standing together:

“One man was telling a story, it was a very good story, and it made him happy, but he told it so fast that nobody understood it.

Yup, that happens a lot.

Negative space, the most important knowledge space

I’ve always been interested in the shadow side of organisations – beyond tacit, that dark underbelly of unstated, often collusive, collective behaviour which informs, and glues together, the official work of the organisation.  Sometimes its a good thing, somethings it’s a seriously bad thing, and gets in the way, but is impossible to clear away. I doubt I’m saying anything about shadows, intangibles, invisibles, informals, that others have not already said.  Although I suppose I could say that without the shadow you’d not be able to see the shape of the thing.  So anyone who cares to look at an organisation without it’s shadow side is doing something like trying to look at the shape, size and colour of an object at the height of the midday sun (when we know only mad dogs and Englishman are out anyway).  

Some nice work has been done taking Jung’s ideas on shadow identity and applying them to archetypes of leadership.  Wizard, king, something, something (I forget what typical modes of leadership were chosen), each has it’s shadow side and the leader must be aware of the effects of the shadow side in order to work to best effect and chose the right people to surround him/her.That’s shadows, anyway.

More recently, I’ve become obsessed with a different but related concept which I can’t help feeling holds the key to the next round of my thinking and practice (and so, inevitably) Sparknow’s thinking and practice.And that’s negative space.  A road partly travelled but I suspect with a long hard climb ahead.It comes from the idea that, in art, the space around the object is where attention needs to be for the artist.   It’s easier to draw the spaces round a hand, a leaf, a chair a tree, and allow the object to emerge from attention to the negative spaces.  Henry Moore said something like ‘the hole holds more meaning than the material surrounding it’.  A window frames a view and makes sense of it (which isn’t quite negative space but is about looking through rather than at.)

My tiny, but growing and excitable hunch, is that in this germ of an idea is a huge truth.  We’re stumbling across it already by seeing knowledge workers as navigators – people through whom you find access; by making a shape of someone by what they google or what they recommend on Amazon; cookie trails allow us to trace the outline of a person without ever having to see the person directly.  I think we can go one stage further and imagine, in thinking what knowledge is key operating knowledge, a two step process (with more steps to follow as I imagine it)

1.  trace the outline of a person, google-wise, or amazonishly, through social network analysis, by what they use, what they recommend,  who they consort with

2.  persuade the person then to step out of themselves and look back at the space left and then describe not what they do, but what isn’t happening now they aren’t doing it, preferably to an invisible or actual colleague who they care about, so that they want to describe the task(s) in enough detail that the other is able to carry it/them out sufficiently well for only the smallest number of organisational hiccups to occur.

This goes perfectly with two things which seem increasingly important to me from everything I see.  Both are to do with knowledge not being captured.Codified knowledge doesn’t exist.  Codified information does though.Knowledge can’t be captured, except in the most labour intensive ways and even then, like a map, the terrain is always inescapably larger and more complex than the map of it.  It’s impossible to make a map of the world which covers the world.  Or if not impossible, actually pointless since it would add nothing.  It’s the miniature form of the map as a guide which makes it portable, relevant, useful to the user.  A 1:1 scale map of the world would be useless.  Knowledge capture of the literal kind is exactly the same.  Useless.  Too big.   Compression, illumination, symbols which make useful patterns are reference points, are what is useful.

Information, guidance and reference materials can be captured, but in the end (Bruno Latour-wise) its the interaction of the agent with the knowledge-object which determines an action. More and more work is conducted in a non-linear way – not at your desk, not in a sequence, but in groups and simultaneously.  The knowledge exists in the presence of each other and of codified resources in an environment conducive to exchange (slow or fast, more or less documented, depending on your purpose.)  So the knowledge exists in a moment in time, the information which results can point to, but not replicate, the experience of that knowledge.  So knowledge is in gaps which are temporarily closed and then opened again when people disperse from a meeting, a room.  It’s a vanishing thing, leaving a more or less ghostly trace, with some embodied consequences for those who were present, and perhaps those in their networks. That’s the first thing about capture.The second is to do with the contract between organisation and individual, or between organisations, particularly in circumstances where knowledge of business processes must be retained during a move, or restructing, or merger or upheaval of any kind. 

Capture is a hierarchical, intrusive concept.  It implies minions, service, servitude.  It implies containment.  It’s entirely the wrong concept for thinking about how to retain what is needed in order to operate the business.  And it takes no account of the individual on the receiving end of the upheaval.Which is again where negative space comes in.  

An invitation to imagine themselves as vanished and see

1.  what work does not get done when they are not at work and

2. what work would need to get done by another filling their shoes

is a far more delicate and thoughtful conversation and one that can lead to the sense of knowledge as a donation.  

Firstly the indirectness of the question allows them to pay attention and describe something which sits not in the individual but in the space between them and their imaginary colleague and will allow for a much more open and trusting description.  Then also, by going through this imagining process, the individual who is up-heaved can also be invited to share something that they themselves will be a beneficiary of – they can donate what they know and also treasure it for themselves;  they can leave a legacy and take it with them.  And we know from oral history work that the process of valuing themselves expressly in ways that they perhaps haven’t before, makes them visible to themselves and others in ways they haven’t been before.

I’m almost out of time and I’ve not even referred to the thing which propelled this idea (which I’ve tried out a bit, but not found a way to communicate well yet) right up to the surface for me was Shibboleth, the exhibition at the Tate Modern.  It’s a huge crack, running apparently through the fabric of the floor in the Turbine Hall, the main exhibition hall.  And it’s astonishing.  I’ll write more soon, but here’s a short note from the Tate Modern website.Much more to follow while I try and find this idea and what it means for me.  

About

Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth is the first work to intervene directly in the fabric of the Turbine Hall. Rather than fill this iconic space with a conventional sculpture or installation, Salcedo has created a subterranean chasm that stretches the length of the Turbine Hall. The concrete walls of the crevice are ruptured by a steel mesh fence, creating a tension between these elements that resist yet depend on one another. By making the floor the principal focus of her project, Salcedo dramatically shifts our perception of the Turbine Hall’s architecture, subtly subverting its claims to monumentality and grandeur. Shibboleth asks questions about the interaction of sculpture and space, about architecture and the values it enshrines, and about the shaky ideological foundations on which Western notions of modernity are built.In particular, Salcedo is addressing a long legacy of racism and colonialism that underlies the modern world. A ‘shibboleth’ is a custom, phrase or use of language that acts as a test of belonging to a particular social group or class. By definition, it is used to exclude those deemed unsuitable to join this group.‘The history of racism’, Salcedo writes, ‘runs parallel to the history of modernity, and is its untold dark side’. For hundreds of years, Western ideas of progress and prosperity have been underpinned by colonial exploitation and the withdrawal of basic rights from others. Our own time, Salcedo is keen to remind us, remains defined by the existence of a huge socially excluded underclass, in Western as well as post-colonial societies.In breaking open the floor of the museum, Salcedo is exposing a fracture in modernity itself. Her work encourages us to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves with absolute candidness, and without self-deception.Doris Salcedo was born in 1958 in Bogotá, Colombia, where she lives and works. Amonographic display of her work can be seen on Level 3 as part of the Poetry and Dream collection displays.                

Mind the Gap: knowledge work and the UK construction industry

I’m close to the final thing, or the first thing, depending.
Here’s the synopsis. This feels like a beginning to me in some way I’m not yet able to describe. Rather like the article ‘One continuous accident mounting on top of another’
in which Francis Bacon describes his creative process, if that’s not too pretentious of me.

Q: It often happens, does it, this transformation of the image in the course of working?

It does, but now I always hope it will arrive more positively. Now I feel that I want to do very, very specific objects, though made out of something, which is completely irrational from the point of view of being an illustration. I want to do very specific things like portraits, and they will be portraits of the people, but, when you come to analyse them, you just won’t know – or it would be very hard to see how the image is made up at all. And this is why in a way it is very wearing, because it is really a complete accident. For instance, the other day I painted a head of somebody, and what made the sockets of the eyes, the nose, the mouth were, when you analysed them, just forms which had nothing to do with eyes, nose or mouth; but the paint moving from one contour into another made a likeness of this person I was trying to paint. I stopped; I thought for a moment I’d got something much nearer to what I want. Then the next day I tried to take it further and tried to make it more poignant, more near, and I lost the image completely.
Because this image is a kind of tightrope walk between what is called figurative painting and abstraction. It will go right out from abstraction, but will really have nothing to do with it. It’s an attempt to bring the figurative thing up on to the nervous system more violently and more poignantly.

Well, of course it’s pretentious, but better than not going right out on a limb.

The moreoreless finished article (or opening chapter?) ended up around 9,000 words plus footnotes on knowledge work in the UK construction industry which seems to have turned in some way into a founding essay for Sparknow’s next ten years. Here are the synopsis, and Sparknow’s founding essay. If you’d like a copy of the whole paper and are willing to comment on it, please email me.

I’ve also promised to go back through and assemble the various works on knowledge and space, and on slowness, which Clive Holtham and I wrote over the years, and make them available here.

Next year when I’ve more breathing space, I’m inclined to play with a wiki which starts to thread the whole thing together into a position on knowledge work and workplace design for knowledge work.

‘MIND THE GAP’: A View of Knowledge Work in the UK Construction Industry
Overview
This paper explores the following questions:
1. What is knowledge work?
2. Who is a knowledge worker?
3. What are the characteristics of a high knowledge economy and a firm in it?
4. What kinds of knowledge issues are there in the UK construction industry?
5. What kind of knowledge- and collaboration-intensive processes work?
6. What kinds of encouragement do people need to engage in knowledge work?
It makes six main points:
1. Everybody is a knowledge worker. The construction industry as a living knowledge system challenges the view that knowledge work is done in the head.
2. The dominant metaphors of knowledge work hinder. A move towards metaphors of ecology, culture and environment and away from metaphors of capture, capitalisation and resources would help.
3. Knowledge lies in the gaps in between – between participants in a project, in the time between the generation of an idea, the execution of a project and its subsequent management, between disciplines. Knowledge is activated only in context in a particular moment. Only information can be codified.
4. Information infrastructure, economic incentives, innovation systems, and education and learning – the four pillars of the knowledge economy – are a useful lens through which to assess the state of knowledge in construction.
5. The UK construction industry, by its nature has a lot of ‘gaps in between’. It’s knowledge-rich, but not yet very able in managing the gaps to generate competitive advantage.
6. Tools and techniques might be under any label, of which knowledge is only one, but are subordinate to an intent to create values and a culture which encourages effective knowledge behaviours at all levels.

Sparknow Founding Essay: Designing Spaces for Knowledge

Poets and clowns

Metaphor.
It’s time.

I was chairing a conference on knowledge management yesterday and here’s (moreoreless) how I ended.

One of the most useful frames for making sense of this woolly subject is Max Boisot’s thoughts on knowledge. He suggest that we operate continuously in an information and knowledge continuum with conversation at one end and commodity at the other. An awareness of the continuum allows us to make the dynamic of the flow that much more effective – we can work it, and it will work for us, so to speak.

But the real moment of knowledge is when that continuum is located in a new environment and does work there.

So, for example, lets look at an article in the free newspaper Metro from 19th September 2007.

‘Patch needles out pain’

A revolutionary skin patch using printer cartridge technology coudl soon put an end to painful injections. The new ‘smart patch’ is similar to a nicotine patch and uses hundreds of tiny needles to deliver medication directly into a patient’s bloodstream.’

Nozzes from an HP printer cartridge were redeveloped. Here then, in one sense, the metaphor of a printer is transferred into the medical world and put to work (not so different to those old polio jabs of my youth though?)

Here’s the bit I didn’t get into with the delegates as I had no time.

Lets think about this as new conversation spaces. Habermass says in his theories of communication that conversations between people need to take place in a new space, unfamiliar to either.

And this, for me is where the muscle of metaphor can really show.

And I mean muscle literally (I’m back on the conference talk, we’ll come back to Habermass many times no doubt.)

Jonathon Miller’s book ‘The body in question’ is a beautiful masterpiece I’d recommend to anyone. And in it, writing about the heart, he talks of the role that metaphor played in understanding the heart. Doctors were puzzled, they couldn’t work out what the chambers were for or how the heart functioned and they got stuck. Then the invention of the steam engine came along and the metaphor of the technology of a pump allowed them to step outside their own world of understanding and see it from the viewpoint of that metaphor, leading to the insight that the heart itself was a pump.

So that’s where metaphor can play a transformative role of the very best kind.

In small ways it allows us to know how to behave in certain spaces too. So David Gurteen’s knowledge cafe, with which the conference ended, allows us, through the terminology, moreoreless to know what David expects of us in the session and we can settle into that.

Of course we can settle into that too far, or use metaphors in superficial branding attempts or allow the tired cliches of overused, out of the box, blue sky, black box metaphors to thud on the floor and lie there wriggling. There should be a ban. We once ran a session which my colleague calls ‘wank word bingo’ to flush these out and the glee of making a kind of dartboard of organisational jargon made for a lively time.

The metaphors which abound in knowledge management, a discipline (or often in-discipline) in search of a common language, also knock around doing as much harm as good.

I’ve lovely metaphors to go and fish out about fish, in fact which recast how we see time and story and ideas – Virginia Woolf, William Golding. But I’ve run out of time for now.

And there are metaphors and images (look at the way appreciative inquiry asks its questions ) which, well handled, illuminate the parts of emotion and difficult feeling, or allow for honest channels to convey negative thoughts without being aggressive. I’ll come back to that. But try, at the end of a lessons learned interview, asking people if an image or metaphor comes to mind that for them sums up the project and find out then the truths than can be conveyed in this more delicate way.

Darn it, must dash. I had so much more to say.

I’ll be back.

Let’s end with Ivan Illich again. Tools for Conviviality. So much an essential reader for our time.

‘Poets and clowns have always risen up against the oppression of creative thought by dogma. They expose literalmindedness with metaphor. They demonstrate the follies of seriousness in a framework of humour. Their intimate wonder dissolves cdrtainties, banishes fear, and undoes paralysis….Poetry intuition, and theory can offer intimations of the advance fo dogma that may lead to a revolution in awareness.’

Taking stories to the other side

In one of the episodes of the final series of the West Wing, CJ Cragg is more and more frustrated by her inability to make a dent, leave something behind. So when someone from an NGO tries to make an appointment with her, she breaks with habit and gives him a slot in her diary.

He overwhelms her with statistics about the atrocities in Sudan. Thousands, millions, terrible things, rape, amputation, devastation. It’s all beyond her grasp, there is nothing she can imagining doing in this vastness of human failure, and he can see from her face that he is losing her attention, so he says, suddenly

‘When the babies die, the mothers carry them round in their arms because there is nowhere to put them down.’

20 words (I approximate, from memory.)

‘When the babies die, the mothers carry them round in their arms because there is nowhere to put them down.’

You can see the image of this slice through her helplessness and frustration and spring her to action, unorthorised by the President. When, at the end of the episode, he calls her to task for not having cleared things with me, it is this that she says to him. All the same, neither would have acted on those 20 words alone, although it took the 20 words to push CJ to action. The big numbers, the huge evidence of human tragedy filtered through the tiny glow of unbearable imagery.

This embrace between narrative and analysis was brought to mind for me yesterday by an article in the Guardian called ‘When the lights go out, students take off to the airport’

It tells the story, spliced with statistics, of the children in Guinea who go to study by the floodlgihts at Bgessia International Airport because they have no electricity at home. I doubt I would have read it if it had said ‘The lack of eletrictricity in Guinea is a ‘geological scandal”, although that quote comes further down in the article, when I’m ready to read it.

Some big challenges here, which must always be held close to the heart in marrying narrative and analysis in a thoughtful and authentic way, not just to pull.

The first is, how to make sure the illumination is not dramatising, but genuinely representative and informative, a way through image or metaphor, to help people find their way into a subject. In this article I really could hold the picture of the children and their education in mind and fill myself up with statistics on a subject which I had only thought about a little before.

An old article from March 2006, in something called OW weekly (whatever that is), lies filed in my ‘Small Stories’ category in my slowly emerging filing system. It is a profile, by Carole Cadwalladr of Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland. Mary has been transforming the language of aid. She says

‘If we keep this conversation in trade langauge, then it keeps it as trade. But if we can show the human-rights consequences then i’ts more powerful. It makes people very uncomfortable.’

Cadwalladr goes on to say

‘Everywhere we go, Mary has a story to tell. At the coffee farm, she tells her audeince how she grew up surrounded by farmers in ‘the poorest part of Ireland’. At the Amana hospital she points out that Ireland’s history was not so very different from that of Tanzania, a poor ex-colonial land with a tortured history. There’s a story for everyone. And this, I realise, is what Mary does…you’ve got to be able to tell people things in language they understand. And what Mary’s doing is taking stories to the other side. To US member of Congress, she too takes from the cotton fields of Mali, of babies lying in ditches, because of the US governemtns’ $4 billion of aid to US cotton farmers. To the Tanzanians she tells stories of Ireland’s rise out of pverty adn to the country’s president Kikwete, she presses home how small changes in the health-care system that we saw in action at Amana hospital can signficiantly reduce the nubmer of women who die in childbirth.’

Steve Denning, formerly of the World Bank, coined the term springboard stories a while back for these small, condensed evocations, which he sees as an essential part of the armoury of the leader, tiny sparkplugs which spring people to imagination and action. (It’s by far his best book in my view, although I find that it limits the concept of storytelling in organisations to one to do with higher order communication and leadership skills and that’s not where I’m inclined to spend my time. But his categorisations and especially the appendices are rich food for thought on structuring and placing a springboard story and should not be bypassed by anyone with an interest in the subject. I’d also like to make clear that, whatever my critique, I have the utmost respect for Steve in what he has done to transform the credibility and acceptance of narrative and story in an organisational context, not least in co-founding the Golden Fleece with Madelyn Blair and others.)

What I’ve spoken of so far is a mix, about which I’m truthfully a bit uneasy of factual journalism spiced up with strong images which will draw the reader in, and the stories that inspiring leaders select for themselves from their own autobiography, and what they witness and carry with them as travellers who cross the divide between worlds.

How are we all to make sure connection between the big context, the facts, and the small stories which bring them to life are kept honest? How are we to keep the difference between analytical reporting and storytelling positive and make sure holds its integrity. In a 5 year project working with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation we worked towards, and ended up with a guide to using story as an instrument of knowledge management in an aid setting: ‘Story Guide: building bridges using narrative techniques’ At the beginning, we showed two ways of telling of the same thing. The first had been collected through a technique for sharing personal experiences collectively that allows, through emergent self-selection, the stories resonant for the community be identified by them.


The Inspiring Pot
“Bangladesh is a really impressive place… in a positive sense. I was in a village last year working in water and sanitation. We were trying to promote the use of improved latrines, but could not produce concrete slabs and rings locally for a low cost. Somebody told me to visit the latrines of a lady in the village, so I went along and said, “Can I see your latrines?” She had made a latrine out of a clay pot with the bottom cut off. Then with a potter from the area she developed a small local production of bottomless pots, and they became the latrines. Ingenious.

A few weeks later I was in another village and saw a hand pump; it was broken, just a small piece missing. So I said to the villagers, “Why don’t you repair your pump?” And they said, “Oh, we just wait for another donor to bring a new pump.” So I said, “Why don’t you visit the lady in the village over there? She finds ways of getting things done for herself.”

Perhaps 30 personal stories of experiences in the field had been shared (in repeated rounds in smaller groups) and then people had selected the most resonant for them, bringing it down to 3 stories which held collective meaning. These were retold to the whole room, and recorded word for word (in this case, frantic typing, normally with a small Olympus or mini disc)

A while later, when we were trying to convey what the written conventions of organisational reporting do to shrivel and spoil raw materials, I rewrote this as


Lessons learned from fieldwork in Bangladesh

“In our evaluation of a project in Bangladesh we noted a wide variance in the competence of individual villages to develop sustainable and effective solutions to problems encountered, for example in replacing broken parts or developing low cost products for example new latrines. The lessons to be learned from this evaluation are that we should:

* work against over-dependence on donors;
* note and encourage entrepreneurial approaches to problems;
* identify existing and repeatable good practices;
* build and strengthen communication between villages to assist cross-fertilization of ideas at the grassroots level.”

I always meant this to be tongue in cheek: an ironic way to make an important point. And we’ve used the comparison a lot to engage people with the subject. It always works. But I’ve come to see that both ways of conveying the material work well. Jacques actual story, recorded by us, is a terrific illustration of the dependence that can develop on aid workers and the helplessness of those provided for. But the duller, less illuminating translation into report-speak also acts as a bridge, a way to summarise and abstract and create a way to compare this with other illuminations to find common patterns. It’s both/and not either/or.

Coming back to electricity and it’s lack. This has come up for me in respect of another challenge, which we noticed acutely for the first time when running a story competition for the Islamic Development Bank. The competition, ‘Voices from the Field’ invited IDBers (‘IDaBers’, those who work for this impressive development bank) to submit true stories of the impact of the Bank on its beneficiaries. How to set the judging criteria for such a competition is a long blog for a different time, and much more besides on the process of handling such a competition. We did it pretty well, building on two previous competitions. But we still noticed a new challenge in the selection of longlisted and shortlisted winning stories. It was so much easier to respond to stories of personal journeys than those of big projects. The young girl in Bangladesh, given a grant to do vocational training who ends up running her own sewing business; the young man, given a grant, who becomes a doctor and goes home to set up a health centre. These were so much easier to tell and respond to than the big electricity and road projects which have more systemic substance.

And we found ourselves giving particular credit to those who could, somehow, convey the big projects but bring them down to the personal. One winning story, as I recall, was about an electricity project, perhaps in Sudan. The teller began with a powerful evocation of the consequences of the lack of electricity – the sweat, the dark, people dying on operating tables. And then the presence of IDB as a contributor to an infrastructure project which brings electricity is conveyed via watching a news report on television. And we move back to a personal view of what it feels like afterwards.

I raise this to bring me back round to the beginning – the marriage of narrative and analysis, huge systemic systems and their human impact in a truly representative and not a dramatising way, but one which will change the perspectives and actions of the listener or reader.

But I’d like to end in a slightly different place, which is surprise. The IDB judges surprised themselves in their judging in several ways. In judging this story, one of them said that he hadn’t expected to be moved by such a story in some ways. After all, they are common experiences for most in member countries, not much out of the norm. But in fact when he was reading the stories for the first time, there was a power cut in Jeddah, and as he lay awake slick with sweat it suddenly flashed into his mind that he had forgotten what it was like always to be in the heat and the dark. So the story re-evoked for him personally, in a powerful way, the point of why he went to work. To stop such things happening.