Twelvetide 20:04 The variety of narrative experience

December 28, 2020

DSC 7841In this second section, I am moving on to the wider field of narrative.    I wrote a paper on narrative and phenomenology while at University for a college seminar on feminism which got me into an over-intensive library period looking at archetypal story forms in different societies.  That involved a mixture of fascination and irritation going through the two volumes of Tylor’s Primitive Culture which founded the field of Cultural Anthropology.  I only remembered that when I started to write this post but it may have had a deeper influence than I thought.  I’d always collected different myths when i could find them so the wider interest was there for some time.

So when I started the work on knowledge mapping and created ASHEN it was logical to look at narrative capture as a way of revealing decisions and as importantly gather the content of those stories.  That turned out to be a gift as I moved into the field of narrative from the point of view as a discovery-based research technique rather than focusing on communication.  I developed the idea of an Anecdote CircleAs it happened other people in IBM were also working on narrative and story and we formed the IBM Story Group, the story of which I recounted in the recent Cynefin book for those interested; signed copies still available.

That narrative material had wider utility and I created two sets of interpretative methods to go with capture, namely the use of archetypes and template construction to improve communication – both of those I will address tomorrow.  That work and the early development of the Cynefin framework bought me to the attention of DARPA from which a whole body of work flowed.  I told the story of this in the Cynefin book above referenced.  The DARPA programs were critical in the overall scheme of things, providing funding and real-world needs, especially after 911.   The early work focused on narrative for conflict reduction but then after 911, I started to focus on micro-narratives as a source of weak signal detection.  From that, it was tropes, strange attractors, and SenseMaker® all of which will come in the third post in this section.  in a very real sense, I wish that I knew then, what I know now as the work would have progressed faster but life, as they say, is learning.

So I separate my narrative work into two periods, the IBM period and post IBM, or more specifically post DARPA where SenseMaker® started to take priority over the methods – something I am currently in the process of rebalancing, starting with these posts and extending in January to the open-source wiki.  Posts two and three in this section will cover those two periods.  But in this first post, I want to set the broader context and to do that  I want to use a framing I created for the Encyclopedia of Action Research to look at the various types of narrative work.   The field itself is vast and the heading of this post is a rather cryptic reference to Ninian Smart’s The Variety of Religious Experience which I still refer to from time to time.  Ninian founded the Religious Studies Department at Lancaster –

Screenshot 2020 12 29 at 19 36then a progressive alternative to Theology.  Narrative has many things in common with religion and of course, is a key element of it.  I didn’t want to create a set of categories, but more a way of looking at things from different perspectives so I ended up with a triangle, shown to the right.  The three core functions of Communication, Understanding, and Recording translated into Story Telling, Narrative Research, and Knowledge Management.  I draw a spider’s web behind it, and beyond it to indicate that this is a field that defies simple categories.  So let us start with the three main perspectives.

  1. The Knowledge management use went beyond a disclosure device for decision mapping and I started to develop the idea of narrative databases as a type of knowledge repository.  That fitted well with the work I had done with Max on codification and abstraction which in turn expanded by the key rule of We always know more than we can tell and will always tell more than we can write down.  The blog post on this is recent so I don’t need to update it here.  I expanded that idea to narrative enhanced doctrine in which codified best/good practice material was linked to the real-world narrative.  If you can read stories of experience the doctrine becomes more real and finding more stories like mine or stories which are different from mine not only provided a valuable form of serendipitous discovery but made reading doctrine more palatable.  In Iraq Company Commanders’ blogging was more valuable than doctrine as it was immediate and contextual.  The other fascinating thing about narrative databases is that they can store failure – the most radical project I ever did here was The day I know I killed someone for doctors.  In general, we pay more attention to failure than we do to success and if you can find a way to share failure without attribution of blame.
  2. Narrative research is a well-established field of practice and the big three here are Yiannis Gabriel, Barbara Czarniawska, and David Boje.  Barbara’s book Narrating the Organization should be on anyone’s reading list as should all of Yiannis’s work.  Boje is more problematic, his idea of anti-narrative is a key one in the field but he has an ambiguous relationship to truth.  He said something that was plainly wrong in one article – suggesting that I had only taken up narrative work in IBM after the HBR published an article on the subject and cited one of my articles in support.   I politely pointed out that said article says that IBM only took my work seriously after the article was published which is completely different.  At that point, he admitted that he had not read the article but had relied on what someone had told him (which is pretty shameful for an academic) and refused to correct it or even admit that he had been wrong (which is pretty shameful as a human being).  I think I came to realise though that, and other encounters that ideology triumphs objectivity for extreme post-modernists such as Boje.  The most amusing exchange was when I asked how our approach, in which people self-interpreted their own narrative could be classed as managerial.  His response was that when he interpreted people’s stories he removed managerial ideology from the content so that their “true voice” could come through; at that point, I gave up.  This is a man who knows that he is right, regardless….     My overall take on this I will pick in my third post in this section where I want to raise the question of post and pre hoc interpretation so for the moment I just want to list the main names in the field and flag up my main concern – power comes with interpretation.
  3. Storytelling is, of course, an ancient profession and the oral history of communities is a rich source of meaning.  Oral history has an ability to evolve and I have often said that Europe suffered when Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm codified the oral tradition as that prevented it from changing, developing, and evolving into different contexts.  Everyone recounts anecdotes but few people are gifted storytellers and in all traditions that art has always been seen as something you grew into through an apprenticeship that takes time.  An Irish seanchaí was apprenticed for a decade to take one example.  I’ve been to storytelling festivals and enjoyed every minute, even when I didn’t understand the language the cadence of the spoken word was itself fascinating.  If you look at religious texts they all use parable forms of story in which you learn lessons without having the lesson spelled out to you, it is a process of discovery of encounter with new meaning.  I decided early on in my work that teaching people to be storytellers was not a place I wanted to do on grounds of practicality and authenticity.  Teaching people to use narrative to better communicate is a different matter and I will talk about that tomorrow.  The other thing that I realised as I studied this field and visited archives of indigenous material recorded by early anthropologists is the way in which codification can stultify meaning and learning and I wanted to learn from that.  A significant part of my work with SenseMaker® is to create a living narrative history of a community.  In that context, I saw both strengths, but more significant weakness in the Digital Story Telling movement and realised that the most significant issue in story collection is that of curation.  Storytelling is also the biggest NAFB attractor in the whole field so it comes with a health warning or two, or three …

Now once I have those three aspects then I can start to look at different theories and practices in how they balance the there elements.  You can see two examples in the illustration and there are more that could be so mapped – but please don’t forget the spider’s web that connects the various elements and aspects.


I am going to hold listing principles until the end of the section


Today was one of those special days on the hills as the banner picture shows.  As some readers will know I took on a challenge to climb all the 214 Wainwright Fells in under 40 days without reaching any summit more than once.  That means in general long demanding walks and winter hours make than challenging.  When I planned these two weeks I had marked out routes I could achieve by starting an hour before dawn but I had planned without the snow and ice.  Even with crampons, this means time expands and so does risk.  I normally work on a one hour before dusk ending to give myself a safety margin and carry two head torches.  I also carry enough to survive one night in a survival sack.  With snow, ice, and worse snow on the ice this plan got blown, and not wanting to be confined to low level walks I made the decision this morning to suspect the Wainwright programme to allow me to select walks appropriate to the conditions and the state of my knees!  With no cartilage under either patella, ibuprofen is key and I know that a slip could twist the knee and disable me for a few weeks.

So that left me free for a single summit ascent of Grasmoor from Crummock Water.  I needed microspikes once I hit the snow line given the amount of ice under the fresh fall of snow and I was rewarded with one of those stunning days that make all the effort of ascent worthwhile.  I descended via Gasgale Gill which had its own share of ice and scrambling before a wonderful path along the valley side back to the car.  I took the picture of the corner of a sheepfold for today’s drystone wall.



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Twlevetide 20:03 Abstraction & codification

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I’d been working on knowledge management for some time and have come across Boisot’s book Knowledge ...

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