Director of Learning Innovation Logicearth
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Storytelling: Beyond the buzzword

10th Aug 2015
Director of Learning Innovation Logicearth
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Fiona Quigley explains why telling stories is such an effective part of corporate learning strategy.

So we’ve all been telling stories for ages and ages - it's part of the human condition, right? It is, and storytelling as a ‘thing’ has become popularised in all areas of society and in business. In the last few years, I’ve seen the rise of storytelling as a commodity. The problem, though, is that the technique of storytelling is often hijacked to deliver a contrived messaged or agenda. We can spot inauthenticity a mile off, and this leads us to distrust the storyteller and the message, which in turn devalues the art of storytelling. This article focuses on looking at storytelling as an important tool for succession planning and some of the potential pitfalls to avoid. Of course there is more to succession planning than being able to pass on your knowledge and learning - but it is often an area overlooked.

The current state of succession planning in the UK

In the UK, almost two-thirds (63%) of small-business owners are aged over 50, with just 11% aged 40 or younger [1]. The UK corporate sector doesn’t fare much better - leadership succession plans are being talked about more and more [2], but little in the way of practical solutions have yet to emerge. Most of the baby boomer generation aren’t yet ready to retire, and more importantly, their businesses aren’t yet ready to let them go. Succession planning is something that we must look at now – for the sake of the baby boomers and for Generation X and Y coming behind them. UK business could stagnate unless new generations learn from their predecessors in a timely, planned and organised fashion.

I’d argue that not only are we doing too little succession planning, we are approaching it in the wrong way. We are looking at succession planning as a cliff edge and really we should be looking at it as a continuous improvement opportunity. The minute someone starts in a new job or role, we should be thinking about succession planning. 

For example, if you are new to a role, you could quickly learn from already collated stories. People who have been in roles for a few years have a wealth of experiences and lessons under their belts – they are full of stories waiting to be told. 

But it’s the organisational culture that we need to consider first. Is your organisation willing to support authentic storytelling to really get the most of it? Fear of failing or showing weakness is still alive in the 21st century. It is something that many companies struggle with – how do you encourage people to try things, come up with new ideas and experiment while still maintaining the integrity of your business? Yet, learning through failure (with a good safety net) is such a powerful tool.

Maybe that is the role of storytelling – to help us learn through these types of stories. Not only can we make better choices about the paths we want to follow, we also create a culture of transparency, acceptance and tolerance. 

The problem with the current use of storytelling

I used to work in the healthcare sector, designing elearning for healthcare professionals and sometimes for patients through public health campaigns. I was always asking subject matter experts (SMEs) for practical and relevant content in the form of examples and scenarios. If the SMEs couldn’t provide these, I went directly to the source – the experiences of patients and of healthcare professionals. Nothing wrong with that, I hear you say.

Well, there wouldn’t be, except that often the 'stories' I was asked to gather were very different from the reality of these experiences. I found it difficult to get to the truth or to a critical insight for fear of reprisals. So let me tell you a story about that.

Are we afraid of the truth?

I was interviewing an older lesbian couple about their experiences in healthcare. My research prior to the interview told me a lot of concerning things. For example, that, without the legal protection of marriage, partners in older gay couples weren’t regarded as next of kin and so couldn’t get confidential information in an emergency; or that healthcare professionals often assumed that these couples were sisters or brothers – and this happened every time they met a new healthcare professional. In essence, the couple had to 'come out' every time they met someone new in healthcare. All of these issues emerged from the story the couple told me – and lots more besides. When I played the interview back, the client decided that instead of showing the video as part of the training programme, I should just summarise the learning points and not have direct criticism of the healthcare professionals. It was thought that hearing the story would just make people feel bad and therefore the message would be lost. 

It really saddened me first of all to see the effect that navigating a one-size-fits-all healthcare system had on this couple, and then it saddened me more to lose the richness, nuance and complexity of how they told their own story. The critical point for me was that, in hearing the story, I connected to the human and remembered the impact that unhelpful behaviour has on people’s lives.

I bet I’m not the only ‘story collector’ that this has happened to. If, from the start, you are giving storytellers instructions on filtering their stories in a certain way, then perhaps it isn’t really storytelling at all.

This feature will be concluded next week.

References

[1] A survey of 549 SMEs, conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit on behalf of global insurer Zurich, 2012)

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/jun/24/napf-succession-planning...

Fiona Quigley is head of learning innovation for Logicearth Learning Services. They specialise in designing, delivering and supporting modern workplace learning solutions, which brings success to individuals and organisations. Providing a combination of learning technology products and engaging multi-device eLearning content, they enable organisations to efficiently implement modern learning techniques and methods

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