The corporate memory-makers

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An interesting, if slightly underdone, article in today’s FT:Management – The corporate memory-makers.

Some interesting points in it – the idea of using oral histories is of course a good one. (Given that I’m running another workshop on how to do them in-house on 18th February with Melcrum, I would say that.) And the idea of using retirees and frontline staff – of course both these groups tend to have informal fora to tell stories anyway – a good example being the intranet website set up by the tech-savvy young helpline staff at IBM in the 1990s, that gave them space to share all the bizarre calls they’d get looking for PC help.

What’s less emphasised in the article is the learning available (it gets a mention in the last part of the article, but quickly passed over). Those same IBM call centre staff would learn from the shared stories – new techniques to deal with callers, quirks of the technology, etc – along with the shared sense of belonging it generated.

The best way I’ve so far discovered to collect this material is Anecdote Circles (free how-to guide from Cognitive Edge here)

And, beyond gathering material and stories, we’ve found they have multiple uses:

  • Generating new understanding
    We ran a series of anecdote circles with a UK government department around the idea of leadership and while the focus was on collecting material for the communications and development teams, many of those involved went away enthused with new understanding of what leadership might entail.
  • Closing projects
    It’s mentioned in the last paragraph of the FT article, but it can be a fabulous thing to wrap projects up, particularly when combined with a celebration. Far better and healthier than the traditional lessons learned exercises (which tend to be the same as previous lessons learned)
  • Starting projects
    Another element, perversely, is to run one as part of the project startup phase. This way, the team can get a good assessment of each other, what their previous experience is (as well as how they perceive the world) and potentially spot future obstacles. (We’ve all had the experience of sitting three months into a project at a blockage and someone piping up “this happened on the last one too – what we did was…”) Better to get that at the start than halfway through.

The difficulty, surprising to many people, is what you do with the material afterwards – it’s possible to generate hundreds of stories in a short space of time. Listening or watching or reading them all would be impossible from a time perspective, but more importantly would be futile as we’d dismiss many and become so entrained, we’d miss the relevant ones.

It’s been the thing we’ve struggled with at Narrate in the past decade – what do you do with a mass of stories – but having worked on projects in the past year with Cognitive Edge and their SenseMaker suite, we’re now working on some exciting – and highly valuable – interactive projects. More on that later this week.

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