The Power of Stories

Last year Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (Simon & Shuster, 2000) reminded us how community helps grease the wheels of society. Now Don Cohen and Laurence Prusak have extended his message to the business world. In Good Company: How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work (HBS Press, 2001) reminds us that the same values – trust and a sense of community – are equally essential to the health, durability, and profitability of companies.

This message is, as the authors note, particularly relevant in today’s uncertain times: we need social capital – rooted in strong, trusting relationships – to weather the volatility created by mergers, restructurings, layoffs, outsourcing, and plummeting share prices. One way to lay that foundation is though story telling. Organizations in this ever-changing, highly competitive global economy can use stories to capture their identity, to remind people of who they are and what they do.

Good corporate storytelling is one sign of proper grounding and stability, a sign that a company has valued assets, not fleeting experiences. Stories – oral or published – become important reminders that transmit culture, seek to preserve it, and establish reputation. In Ancient Greece, Cohen and Prusak tell us, theatre was used to foster community. Attendance by citizens may have been mandatory (so is showing up for work) but the retelling of familiar stories, central myths, helped define what it meant to be an Athenian. Corporate storytelling has a similar effect. Stories that capture what the company stands for “help tie together individual identity and organizational identity” and thus do more to create a sense of membership than any mission statements could hope to achieve.

Stories become entrenched as “myths” and myths, according to the authors, have the power to shape how companies and their employees see themselves. From war stories to descriptions of milestone events, myths remind people what “it” is all about. Any company that starts to lose sight of its original mission and values can use its stories to help employees – and customers – to understand the history, values, and aims of their organization.

It’s good to see corporate storytelling finally earning some respect. An article from the August 19, 2001, New York Times (Lynnley Browning, “Nuggets Mined from the Corporate Past, for a Fee”) illustrates the growth of this trend. Two particular examples Browning provides are recent books commissioned by Corning – and researched and written by an outside firm, the Cambridge Massachusetts-based communications firm, The Winthrop Group. These are far more than just “sophisticated anniversary pieces,” they are scholarly guidebooks with insights about Corning’s corporate strategy that will serve Corning as effective management – and marketing – tools to help employees, customers, academics, and general readers identify with the work of their company.

Corning is a company beset by recent public relations problems (in the case of Dow Corning) and one whose collective memory has been hurt, like many companies, by employee turnover. These books should, therefore, be valuable communications tools in the Corning arsenal. Reminding employees and customers what Corning is “all about” is one message of these knowledge products. Another message is less subtle: Corning is a survivor. Because the books illustrate how knowledge and creativity at Corning has helped the corporation weather previous hard times, the volumes will promote behaviour that helps Corning survive its more recent troubles, including the downturn in the fiber optics industry. By communicating explicit and tacit knowledge – not just information but real know-how and understanding – these are stories that will help the company get its work done.

(Originally posted in Knowledge Marketing Watch, August 2001)

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