Having once again summoned the article by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid that appeared in 1991 in Organization Science entitled, "Organizational learning and communities-of-practice" to beat someone over the head (this time JP Rangaswami in his effort to promote Facebook as a vehicle for knowledge management), I figured it was time for me to review for myself what I thought were some of the gems from this paper that keep it alive for me over fifteen years after it was published. Beyond the "big picture" in which the authors develop "a unified view of working, learning, and innovation," which I have already cited, the argument to which I continue to return is the case they make for the role of storytelling in this unified view. That case draws heavily on Julian Orr's anthropological study of Xerox repair technicians, with particular attention to their practice of sharing "war stories" at the end of a hard day's work. What emerges is an analysis of how the very telling of these stories is as important as the stories themselves in the ways in which those technicians behave as knowing subjects. Here is a passage from the Brown-Duguid paper that bears much of the argumentative weight for making this case:
Story telling allows them [the repair technicians] to keep track of the sequences of behavior and of their theories, and thereby to work towards a coherent account of the current state of the machine. The reps try to impose coherence on an apparently random sequence of events in order that they can decide what to do next. Unlike the documentation, which tells reps what to do but not why, the reps’ stories help them develop causal accounts of machines, which are essential when documentation breaks down. (As we have suggested, documentation, like machines, will always break down, however well it is designed.) What the reps do in their story telling is develop a causal map out of their experience to replace the impoverished directive route that they have been furnished by the corporation. In the absence of such support, the reps Orr studied cater to their own needs as well as they can. Their narratives yield a story of the machine fundamentally different from the prescriptive account provided by the documentation, a story that is built in response to the particulars of breakdown.
It is arguments like these that remind me why I get so upset when I ponder evidence of our growing inability to tell stories. On the one hand this make be taken as a sign of our work culture undermining our more general social culture; but, at least to those of us who buy into the Brown-Duguid argument, that inability is also undermining our work culture. What will we be left of our lives when the social contexts of both work and leisure have been so undermined? Perhaps yesterday's comparison that put us below the level of the great apes is not as hyperbolic as I originally intended it to be!