Confusing story telling with narrative

June 5, 2007

Narrative work, in the sense that I presented it involves the mass capture of anecdotal fragmented material. The material is primary sense-making is self-indexed at the point of origin. Meaning then emerges from the interaction of a reacher or questioner who encounters multiple fragments in the context of a visualisation or an ambiguous questions. The various fragments, the users own experience and the current context blend to create new knowledge. A story is not told, meaning is created.

An hour after I presented one of the chairs said he had looked up story telling the web and had discovered tools that allowed people to choose from a library of material and create a story, he thought this would be a good thing (I started to feel depressed). Then someone from the floor popped up to say that they would present a tool which allowed people to tell a story, got people to tell alternatives stories, challenge that material and then look for common elements and differences. I placed my head in my hands in despair.

In effect this is a form of story-telling within the tradition of scenario planning. If people tell a story, they construct a sequential account of history or a hypothesis about the future, they tell a story. They will start to own that story, it will represent their perspective on what is happening, it will be fundamentally influenced by their hopes and fears and the cultural patterns of the people they live and work with. The group is likely to norm their response to the story even when asked to challenge it, any challenge is limited. Its a known problem with Devils Advocates and Blue/Red teaming. The challenge takes place within the range of what is considered possible to the participants in the process. The more complete the stories, the more it is context bound to the limits of their imagination. Such approaches also entail massive cognitive bias, the patterns of past experience of the participants will determine the way in which they construct the scenario. Giving them libraries of material to place in the story is even more scary as it restricts what they use again. This type of approach came from the attempt to create formulaic approaches to screen writing which only works for B movies and sterile and formulaic soap operas. Its about replicated current knowledge, not discovering new knowledge.

Now don't get me wrong, story construction from raw material, scenario planning even some (but only some) of the normative recipe based approaches to story telling have a useful role to play. But its not the domains of weak signal detection, inter-agency collaboration or knowledge management. Its not going to work to detect flaws in plans either (other than the most obvious) or to see things from other perspectives (again key to strategy). I used another example in the presentation that might help understanding here. The US Army lessons learnt centre has developed some brilliant approaches to knowledge capture. Fragmented material is gathered in the field under fire. The problem is that the material is then analysed to create story like doctrine, or categorised linked to explicit lessons. This does not relate to the way we have evolved to handle this material. What we really want is direct access to the original raw narrative material so that we can blend it with our current situation to create contextual and dynamic learning.

What surprised me (and I know it shouldn't) is the ease with which people slip back into normative, linear and structured models. Not everyone by any means and many people understood the point. The NDM movement with its understanding of the pattern basis of human decision making should be naturals for understanding the inherent non-causality of complex human systems and the need for meaning to be emergent, not structured. To reduce this to story telling, supported by content based libraries is dangerous. Making something new and exciting (the use of narrative) into something that has had its originality removed in order to make it more familiar, to give the appearance of control and structure when such an approach is the antithesis of the tools we need in an uncertain and changing world.

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