The 3 Levels of Narrative: The Organisational Story

We’ve arrived at the top level of narrative: the Organisational story. I’ve been sharing a framework for storytelling that can be used in the design of Social Learning or across other aspects of the Social Age, such as Change, or nurturing Social Leadership. It’s a framework that considers three levels of storytelling: personal, co-created and organisational. The personal narrative is a story of individual change and learning over time. The co-created narrative is the sense making conversation of the community, shared out to the wider organisation, granting access to this tacit wisdom. The organisational narrative should be a meta narrative built upon each of the previous two.

3 Levels of storytelling - organisational stories

In old organisations, the Organisational narrative is written at the top and ‘done’ to people: it’s a traditional model of training, for example, where the organisation creates the syllabus and people complete it, being signed off as ‘competent’ when they pass an assessment. Under a co-created model, the organisation has a say in the story, but the true story is co-owned and co-written by the community in partnership with the organisation. The Organisational story is then an analysis of all of this.

Relinquish Control

I often say to people that the biggest challenge to organisations that want to be more ‘social’ in their approach is that they need to relinquish control: to step back from owning the story, to be more willing to co-create it. Why? Because it’s a fiction that the organisation every truly knew best: what happened was, people complete formal learning, then go and figure out how to do it in real life, within and alongside their communities. As we are doing under a Social approach is getting a permission to hear the conversation. It’s not that we are giving people a space to be non compliant: they are already non compliant, we just have a chance to consider what ‘compliant’ means and whether we should evolve it to learn from what people are really doing to solve our problems.

Facets of Co-Creation

Co-Creation is something we do in communities: it’s a core skill of the Social Age

Social Learning is about ‘sense making’, it’s about how communities take formal knowledge, formal systems, facilitating technologies and then figure out how to make it all work in practice. With the right feedback loops in place, with the right permissions and channels, we get to hear this wisdom, the unheard wisdom that sits within our communities. The communities of people, incidentally, that we employed to do the job in the first place.

Unheard Wisdom

So under a Social Model, the organisational narrative is written last, not first, and it reflects the sense making conversations that we have carried out: it is more about reporting on the true that aspiring to some unrealistic ideal that never truly comes to be.

In this model, the Organisational story, as indeed the personal and co-created stories, are more iterative and evolutionary: this is not one story for all time, but rather interpretation and reinterpretation according to circumstance and situation. Changing stories over time, each one written according to the latest view on the ground.

The 3 levels of narrative

You’ll start to see that this is a very different model of organisational working: less about creating collateral with long shelf lives, more about easy frameworks for updating collateral that reflects best ideas we have this week. It’s co-created in the moment to reflect our current rendition of the truth.

This is how co-created knowledge works: it’s like Wikipedia, updated constantly, moderated by the community, relevant in the moment.

Organisations use stories in many ways: to set a vision for the future, to share what is happening and what they want to happen, to show and teach people how to do things, to ask them to do things differently, to communicate with clients and potential clients, as a layer of branding over the whole organisation, to thank people and to attract new people.

All of these stories tend to be formal: all could be made more co-creative, more authentic, more highly valid and more linked in to the tacit wisdom of the community.

Tacit and tribal knowledge

Social Leaders use stories to take what the organisation wants and to make it relevant to individuals, and to take what the community talks about and make it visible to the organisation. It’s a two way street, which is how co-creation works. No one side forces the story.

When undergoing change, organisations use stories to show a vision of the future, but that vision is often abstract, so highly aspirational that i cannot see my place within it. An agile organisation will take a Dynamic approach to change: creating spaces and communities where individuals can shape the story and claim their place within it. Instead of fighting for survival, fighting to be part of the change, to own and deliver against it. The organisation needs to tell a different kind of story in this environment: co written with the team within a framework set by the organisation.

This is not about losing control, it’s about finding a shared voice.

The ways that organisations write the Organisational story are important: it can be a story told by formal leaders, it can be told by a storyteller, or co-written by the community. It could be in a Wiki or blog, or through formal materials. It can be moved around between different people over time. But crucially, it’s never nailed to the wall: the Organisational story is always co-created and should be a meta narrative that shows the organisation is listening to the stories told by communities and individuals at every level.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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15 Responses to The 3 Levels of Narrative: The Organisational Story

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  6. Yes – it might even be said (in a quasi-scientific way) that engagement is a product of the alignment between the personal and organisational narratives (Dan PInk suggests as much). Leaders do seem to play a central role in aligning organisational and personal narratives (interesting the comparison with ‘objectives’) and your co-creation point serves to illustrate the fundamental shift in locus of control. I think this is coming about because technology has opened up possibilities for people to define their personal story outside of work, something I blogged about here:

    • julianstodd says:

      I love this: “Organisations just aren’t getting it: it’s about the ‘why’, stupid. I find myself in conversations about ‘roles’ and ‘progression’ and ‘roadmaps’ – this is all gone. It’s an oversimplification, but millennials want experiences, not jobs. More importantly they want experiences which they can make part of their story – which they can share with friends.”

      So true: that shift in the locus of control is what it’s all about. No longer an organisational story imposed on individuals who have little say or ownership, but rather a co-created story where the organisation has to learn to listen and adapt.

      Thanks for sharing that piece, and for both challenging and supporting my thinking in this space. Happy New Year Nick!

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