Ensuring knowledge flow through narration

Can the training department, or learning & development, directly contribute to innovation, or are they merely bystanders? Enabling the narration of work is one area where they can help. When it comes down to it, much of learning is conversation. Organizational learning is no longer about courses, which are artifacts of a time when information was scarce and connections were few, because that era is over. Work narration already happens outside the organization, and it’s time to bring it inside.

As with knowledge artisans, many learners now own their knowledge-sharing networks. Today, content capture and creation tools let people tell their own stories and weave these together to share in their networks. Narrating one’s work has been done by coders and programmers for decades, as they “learn out loud.” What started as forums and wikis quickly evolved into more robust networks and communities. Programmers who share their work process and solutions in public are building a resource for other programmers looking to do the same type of work. This makes the whole programming environment smarter. Organizations can do the same.

The public narration of what we do, attempt, and learn on a daily basis not only helps us help others, but also puts us in a position to get help from peers. When your co-workers know what you’re working on and what problems you’ve run into, they can offer their experience. Since few people work in the same room as all their co-workers, they rely on online networks to offer them a common space to find and offer work narration.

Narration helps everyone get smarter. John Stepper says that everyone should work and learn out loud. If you’re confused about what to write, John suggests posting about what you’re working on every day, who you’re meeting with, the research you’re doing, the articles you find relevant, lessons you learned and mistakes you made. These insights are valuable to people trying to train or help co-workers. He also recommends creating short posts that are easy-to-skim; as they make this kind of narration practical for both the author and the audience.

Narration is turning one’s tacit knowledge — what you know — into explicit knowledge — what you can share. Developing good narration skills takes time and practice. Just adding finished reports to a knowledge base does not help others understand how that report was developed. This is where online activity streams and micro-blogging have helped organizational learning. People can see the flow of work in small bits of conversation that, over time, become patterns. Narration of work is the first step in integrating learning into the workflow.

Organizational sense-making can be looked at as either stock or flow. Stock is organized for reference and does not change frequently. Courses are stock. Flow is timely and engaging. Narration of work in social networks is flow. With access to more knowledge flow, via social technologies, highly networked workers can have broader, deeper and richer learning experiences than any instructional designer could ever create in advance.

A worker today can ask questions to a worldwide support network on a platform like Twitter and get an answer in minutes. Deeper questions can be addressed on a service like Quora, where responses get voted on by the community. Many experts worldwide are now narrating their work and making it freely available on the Internet. A new form of distributed cognitive apprenticeship is available, and knowledge workers are taking advantage of this.

In knowledge networks, openness enables transparency, which fosters a diversity of ideas, which in turn reinforces the need for openness. This can be implemented through the use of social networks which can improve knowledge-sharing which fosters innovation, the bottom line for any organization in the network age. The narration of work, is basically knowledge sharing on a regular basis. It’s the raw material of knowledge sharing. It’s not content delivery (stock) that training departments should be focused on but the narration of work (flow).


Training departments should put a major emphasis on learning flow. Stories are an excellent example of learning flow. For millennia, we have learned through stories. This is how gamers and hackers, the digital pioneers, have learned how to learn without curriculum, courses, or instructors:

  • They share their stories.
  • They know there is no user manual.
  • They embrace the flow.

Here is how to ensure knowledge flow through enterprise and external social networks:

  • Capture as much as possible and create digital artifacts.
  • Share as much as possible. Make it the default action by offering entrance into social networks to everyone. [e.g. feed readers, social bookmarks, blogs, photos, videos, social networks, activity streams].
  • Keep everything open and transparent [do not create “walled gardens”]; the key to useful information is being able to find it.
  • Support easy-to-make connections; between people, and with digital resources.

To learn more about narration and other open business practices, join my Learning in Social Business workshop, starting on March 1st.

7 Responses to “Ensuring knowledge flow through narration”

  1. Howard

    I like the way you frame narration as a primary knowledge tool and I believe it is also an important identity tools; for instance, in framing the training department as central to innovation.
    “. . . our ways of talking . . . are not neutral in how we present our world and it’s problems to ourselves: . . . our different ways of talking work to propose different forms of social relationships, different statuses. different ways of positioning ourselves in relations to others, different patterns of rights and privileges, duties and obligations. . . . how the shaping and crafting of the relationships between ourselves and those around us is done linguistically, and the special part ‘you’ might play in such crafting”
    From John Shotter’s Social Accountability and the Social Construction of ‘You”, in the 1989 book “Texts of Identity”: Sage Publications.

    • Harold Jarche

      Thank you, Howard, this is very insightful comment on the many filters that exist in our communications. It shows the notion of knowledge transfer is not an event but an ongoing process of exchanging imprecise messages and trying to come to some common understanding. It’s amazing we can work together at all!

  2. Timothy Gaughan

    Thanks Harold. I just shared this with a team that is just starting to host brainstorming sessions for Operation Managers. Great timing.
    Thanks, Tim


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