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Let stories speak to power

April 29, 2009

I was back in the small unit excellence session this morning before moving on to a part of the World Bank group and thence an overnight flight to the UK. In the first session we had an initial presentation from a Major and Staff Sergeant in the Marines to give us some idea of how things currently worked. Now as most people in this field of study know, the US Marines are a long way from the stereotypes of John Wayne movies and have been involved in some of the most innovative experiments in knowledge management and decision making. It was a privilege to listen to these guys tell stories of their work in Kenya and the Philippines. Deployed as a small unit they were training local troops, but also engaging with the local community. Their narrative switched between shoot/no shoot training to a very matter of fact stories of human interaction. a Philippine orphan whose education had been paid by a unit from their own money. A very funny story about a swim in where their trainees had a failure of navigation (swimming several kilometres through strong currents I am not surprised) and emerged from the ocean to be impromptu stars of the village’s weekly picture show. An enigmatic story about finding, coached and protecting a forward thinking officer in Kenya. Dealing with medical issues in minority tribal communities where the children had never seen a doctor.

None of this was propaganda, it was human beings from one culture talking about encounters with something at first alien and then familiar. It demonstrates that empathy follows from interaction. They were not really talking about these examples per se, but about military matters. However the anecdotal material shone through. Some of it had been reported up, but was reduced by mediation and summarisation. It was the voice of the person that made the story powerful. My response to this (and I hope to do something here) was that these very anecdotes need to be gathered and distributed. Their impact is almost certainly higher than anything which is formally measured within that environment. In that context I and others argued that instead of thinking about how small groups were made more effective, we should be thinking about how the command infrastructure and political environment should be made more amicable to the learning emerging from the small units. All of that was in keeping with the brief from General Mattis the day before. However the focus of many in the group was on the more convention, what is the objective, what is measured, how do we achieve it. A focus on training the individuals rather than increasing human interaction and allowing learning to emerge. In effect to let the stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things speak to power.

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