A couple of weeks ago Janet and I went to a great conference run by the NSW Knowledge Management Roundtable. There were a range of excellent speakers but the last speaker of the day, Shawn Callahan, the founder of Anecdote, spoke about the value of storytelling. His presentation really resonated with us.
Shawn said humans are story-telling creatures and we are hard-wired to share and remember stories. He entertained the audience with a range of stories that demonstrated how much more memorable a story is than a dot point or a statistic. He argued that stories set up several memory pathways in the brain, including visual memories and emotional responses. These multiple pathways mean that if one memory connection breaks, others remain. This creates a much more resilient and powerful memory.
Shawn had more great anecdotes about how stories are powerful vehicles for information dissemination. We like to share stories and the right story has the power to spread quickly. Stories tend to make sense of things. In all areas of business, so much communication is based on the abstract, but stories are concrete. They give a real examples and minimise confusion or misunderstanding by translating the abstract into reality.
So humans are born to tell stories, we like sharing stories and we remember the lessons from stories much more clearly than others forms of information presentation. But storytelling is not a part of most formal business communication.
We think it’s time to bring the story back!
We notice the power of storytelling when we use stories or case studies in our formal advice and training programs. In our Workshop on managing recordkeeping risk in business systems, we start by telling a story. This is how the story goes:
Last year through news reports in the San Francisco Chronicle, we heard about a company in the US, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. In the early evening of 10 September 2010, one of PG&E’s gas pipelines exploded in San Bruno, California. Eight people were killed, 58 people were injured, 38 homes were destroyed and 70 others damaged. It turns out that these devastating consequences were caused in part by recordkeeping. The official government report by National Transportation Safety Board noted that poor information management practices contributed to the disaster. It identified that the risks posed by poor pipe maintenance and construction could not be identified and assessed because of poor quality business information: “The lack of complete and accurate pipeline information prevented PG&E’s integrity management program from being effective.”
A year after the disaster, on 26 September 2011, the Chronicle reported that “Much of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s natural-gas transmission system could be at risk of catastrophic failure, but the company’s record-keeping system is so flawed that the true danger is impossible to determine.”
The disaster and its ongoing affects have had major financial impacts on the company. Financial reports in Morningstar on 14 May 2012 quote the CEO of PG&E, Anthony Earley, estimating that the disaster will cost the company between $1.5 and $2 billion dollars over the next two years, including costs of settling the lawsuits for victims of the disaster, fines levied by regulators and costs associated with pipeline- assessment and safety activities related to the explosion.
We include this story and many other case studies and examples in the workshop because we think they help to demonstrate what the course is really about – the importance of information and the horrible things that can happen to individuals and organisations if information isn’t there. The workshop outlines lots of strategies for building good recordkeeping into business systems, but what stays with people are the stories. And, because we try to make it a collaborative and interactive workshop, what really connects and motivates the participants are the stories they share about their own recordkeeping successes and challenges.
Stories then can be incredibly powerful. But it is interesting how easily we can lose our stories. In his presentation Shawn said that he was called into one large company to help them find the story of why they had initiated a massive finance system roll out across the organisation. Because of the size of the company, the roll out had been underway for several years and in this time the company had lost sight of the reasons why they were actually doing it! Staff did not understand why they needed to support an entire new system and there was resistance to using the new system. So Shawn worked with them to help refind their story, and to help communicate again in a way that was meaningful to all staff why this huge change project was underway.
Janet and I had a similar experience recently. For International Archives Day on 9 June we wrote a post on Future Proof called Recordkeeping Is Awesome! We teamed up with our sister blog Archives Outside who wrote a post Archives Are Awesome! The plan was to come up with 5 simple points using a movie quote theme to explain why both recordkeeping and archives are awesome. Janet and I have worked in recordkeeping for an awfully long time. You would think this would come easily to us. But it did not. It was such a challenge trying to create a short and simple story about the inestimable value of recordkeeping. It was an eye-opening process for both of us.
So we think that we all need to reclaim and share our stories. In the current environment where good recordkeeping may be under threat as a result of technological change and financial pressures, what stories can we tell that show the value of records? What stories can we share that demonstrate the importance of records and recordkeeping?
We would love it if you have a story you can share about when recordkeeping was important to you and your organisation. Please share via the blog or email us below.
We’ll finish with one quick story that is really helping us communicate the changing role of social media at the moment. In our workshop we ask people whether Twitter is a government business system. Nearly everyone in the class laughs, mutters something about Kim Kardashian and then shouts out, ‘No!’. So then we say, ‘what about if you were a Council in regional Victoria, sending out urgent tweets about a bushfire bearing down on your community, and then several months later these tweets are subpoened by a Royal Commission investigating your responses to the crisis?’ Twitter in this instance is being used for significant government business. In this instance it is an official government business system. You need to be managing the information it is generating. And suddenly all the people in the room start looking at Twitter in a very different way.
Please tell us the recordkeeping stories that have resonance with you and your community. When was recordkeeping important to you? Thanks for sharing!