Passport to the 21st Century
John Seely Brown, Steve Denning, 
Katalina Groh, Larry Prusak: 
Some of the world's leading thinkers
explore the role of storytelling in the world

 I Introduction to storytelling I John Seely Brown on science I Steve Denning on change I Katalina Groh on video
Larry Prusak on organization I Discussion I | Contact us | Bibliography on storytelling

Storytelling: Organizational Perspective: Larry Prusak
Time and space

  Now letís get into issues that you donít hear about too much. Time and space. This is the Einstein issue. If I wanted to spend two hours with Lou Gerstner, the President and CEO of IBM, itís possible that with a huge amount of effort and time, using all the social capital at my command, I might be able to get it. I might. This is nothing against Gerstner. Ask yourself about spending time with a key senator, or a president. Itís because time is the most valuable thing that he has. And there are far more valuable things to spend it on. I might win. I might lose. It would be a tough call. But if I wanted to get ten million dollars, for some project that I thought would help IBM, Iíd have a much better shot at getting the money. Much better shot. 
   Thatís true for many of us. Time becomes the currency in the knowledge economy, not money. 

   Itís because itís the way knowledge is manifested. Itís because the form knowledge takes is in time. And time is what we donít have. And yet what weíre constantly telling people, learn more. Be smarter. Reflect. Share. But theyíre not given the time and space to do it.

Knowledge in a financial firm

One of the stupidest things Iíve seen in the last year, in business certainly, and I see a lot of stupid things I must say, we wonít even talk about politics, but in business, thereís a project going on, for the last five years, at one of the worldís largest financial firms. And it was to improve the productivity of its financial planners, which is everyone who sells anything. Hereís a project where the budget so far has been over one billion dollars.  So this is the Consultants Relief Act of 1996. Technology. Consulting. You name it. Everyoneís there. What was interesting about this was that the result, and Iím summarizing, but it was to give people faster laptops, with more crap on it. thatís the end result to make them more productive.  What was interesting was to me when I asked the man who owned this budget, a senior vice president, ďHave you ever spent time, real time, on the street, with these poor buggers who schlep around New York City, selling stuff?Ē
   The answer was, ďNo. The consultants did it.Ē
   So I asked the consultants, they hadnít done it either.
   No one had spent any time with the people earning thirty to fifty thousand dollars a year, plus some sort of commission. I mean, a murderously hard job. These people work ten to twelve hours a day, selling a product thatís no different from the competitors are selling. So itís a really difficult way to earn a living. None of them spent any time with these people. So the answer of course was: more stuff on faster laptops. This is just nuts. And yet that same answer. You get it over and over again.

   ďDid you ever think,Ē I said, ď I mean, itís just a thought, possibly a crazy thought, but did you ever think to take the high-performing sales people, and let them tell the lower-performing sales people what it is they do that makes them higher performers?Ē It didnít seem a remarkably odd thing to suggest.
    And he replied: ďWe didnít have time for that.Ē Iím not making this up. You get variants of this throughout organizations. 

Knowledge in a drug company

   I can give you a more sophisticated example. One of the great drug companies in the United States that had a tremendous year with a product that probably some of us contemplate using. You know, drugs are developed by drug development teams. And these teams are key. And I asked someone who does knowledge work in this firm, and I mean, this is a very fine firm. I said, ďDid you ever think of taking that team and having some sort of facilitated investigation of why they had such a great success, I mean, why they hit a home run? Why were they so successful?Ē Now maybe itís luck? Maybe itís chance? But maybe there are other variables. Maybe they went drinking together? Maybe they were all from the North-East? Maybe they had different college degrees? Thereís a lot of things you could look at.
   They said: ďWe had no time for that. We dispersed the team. We put them on other teams. And so the yeast was gone. Itís the yeast theory of knowledge transfer. You canít get time. 
   And yet, no knowledge is developed, facilitated, or worked with, without time. Nothing. Nothing will happen. Believe me, you can do tons with information, you can do tons with data, you can get it to the speed of light, but knowledge is still really dependent on, what? On how fast you can absorb it. On the human brain. And sad to say, we have the same brain as we had ten thousand years ago. There ainít no change, folks. If anything, Mark Twain wrote an essay that talked about the difference between Jefferson and Grant, and he thought that evolution had gone in reverse in the United States. I donít know. You could probably still make the case that evolution has not speeded up. We still have the same absorptive capacities. We still have the same process speed. Or the technology: if you want to learn to be a great financial salesman, if you want to learn on how to really do something well, it takes time. 

Knowledge in a Japanese drug company

   At that Berkeley presentation that I was just talking about, there was a man there who gave a great case, the head of the Roche company in Japan, Hoffman-LaRoche, and he did just that. He wanted to share the differentiation, how to narrow the gap between the best sales people and the worst. So he brought them together and he thought it through. He took time and they took time: how do you do this? Some of this stuff is unreplicable. I mean, some people have certain skills that you canít learn. 
   Some skills you canít learn: wit 
   When I was at Ernst & Young, Tom Davenport and I had a guy working with us who wanted to go to school to learn how to be witty. So the University of Rhode Island gave a week class on wit, how to become wittier, because he did presentations. And this guy made Gore and Bush look like Henny Youngman. So he took this class. It cost seven thousand dollars. We had to sign off on it, to learn how to become witty, as it helps if you do presentations and have a sense of humor, it really does. So I saw the guy the following Monday. I used to get in to work very early, and I was really expecting something. I was charged up to laugh. I like hearing a good joke. But he was terrible. He couldnít learn it. He was a nice smart guy. He couldnít do it. It sounded awful. 
   Some things can be learned though. Itís sure worth the effort. As Roche pointed out in the talk that they gave, in their sales   which was a magnificent success, because they took time and space. They thought it through. They just give people stuff on laptops. They didnít give them a training manual. They didnít hire a consulting firm to write a report. They got these people together to talk to each other, and to learn from each other. It was facilitated, it was structured, count on it, and it was beautifully done. And it worked. You can measure the effectiveness of such things. 

Books and videos on storytelling 
*** In Good Company : How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work
by Don Cohen, Laurence Prusak (February 2001) Harvard Business School Press
*** The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown, Paul Duguid
(February 2000) Harvard Business School Press
*** The Springboard : How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations
by Stephen Denning (October 2000) Butterworth-Heinemann 
*** The Art of Possibility, a video with Ben and Ros Zander : Groh Publications (February 2001)
Copyright © 2001 Larry Prusak 
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