Seth Kahan
 4/12/03: Jumpstart Storytelling
Smithsonian Associates 2003

   I have deep love for the ancient art of community storytelling.  In the fields of leadership development and knowledge management, there has been a growing appreciation for the power of story to transform and improve performance.
   I have been part of it myself, first hand:
1997-1999: I worked under the guidance of Steve Denning at the World Bank. I saw this large, global bureaucracy change in two short years, transforming itself with uncharacteristic speed into a new organization. We used storytelling in various forms to catalyze the change. 
   I have sat and listened at the feet of Pueblo, Cherokee and Chippewa elders, felt their experience light up inside me, been forever changed by their stories. 
  I carry the stories of my family, my five-year-old son, my wife and her family, my parents and sisters. I carry them with me wherever I go. I listen to them when they are told and I retell them. 
  My family is part of me and I am part of them through these stories. I have helped thousands of seminar participants shift from a defended, prove-it-to-me stance to an engaged, attentive and caring beehive of collaboration in less than an hour... simply by telling and listening to stories.
   We all join and work for organizations.  In so many ways it seems that institutions are bumbling, stumbling along. We are not achieving what we know is possible, falling far short. Employees are generally cynical, uncaring, showing up for a paycheck and benefits, stopping only long enough to mindlessly check off their to-do lists… or worse, they take advantage of the institutional bureaucracy to wait out leaders, of whom they don’t approve, creating inertia that slows the organization to an unresponsive pace. 
   Storytelling and community has something valuable to offer our organizations. Humanity has been replaced by a calculated approach for the majority of employees that leaves little evidence
of our greatest strength: our deep-felt desire to be part of something larger and good, to make a contribution. Through storytelling, humanity can be brought back into our organizations in ways that make us more effective, powerful and capable, increasing the organization’s capacity and results. 

In the late 1980s I was working at the World Bank, training staff to use the institutional technology systems: procurement, project supervision, loan disbursement, etc. Over the years I became a local  expert on technology training. I tutored vice presidents, designed seminars for project teams and ran open classes.
   When the Internet became widely available I put together a presentation that I offered during lunch and after hours to interested staff. It was a huge success. In six months I had trained almost 

2,000 staff members on the basics of how to use the Internet. I was videotaped, produced distributed to the Bank’s 100+ offices around the world. The fledgling knowledge management (KM) initiative identified me and asked me to come along to help transform the institution. They wanted to change the culture from one of hoarding knowledge to sharing it. 
I was a member of the team that built the bank’s first knowledge management system. It was based on new content management principles (in 1996) and used our intranet. The following year I went to work for Steve Denning, our KM Director, and joined the small team that would steer this large, bureaucratic organization to a new destination. Steve was aware of my experiences outside the bank, including my many years as a performance artist and storyteller. 
Our team began to use storytelling as a means to break the ice in meetings. Denning worked, with great success, at using storytelling to evoke systemic change in the organization. He developed ‘springboard’ stories (see his book, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations, (Butterworth Heinemann, 2001). I drew on the forms I had studied and participated in, using ceremonies as templates to develop processes for staff members to share their learning. We didn’t attempt to get people to understand storytelling. Instead, we used storytelling as a tool. 
We accomplished a great deal during the next two years, which led to international recognition and awards in the KM community. We went from no budget to $60m annual allocation for KM activities. Our communities-of-practice, the heart of our knowledge effort, grew from less than ten to over one hundred.  All this in two years, and what was even more miraculous: we were able to insert a KM section on the annual personnel evaluation of every Bank staff member – a truly Herculean result for a large bureaucracy!

I received requests to visit other organizations. In many companies, I spoke about my work as a storyteller. Steve referred to my presentations as “turning suits into people”. That phrase told me that we were doing something special, something fundamentally human – something that involves caring. 


When I think of community, three things come to mind: a group of people, shared purpose and caring. The first two are easy to realize in a business context, but the third is no less important. 

One of the more helpful writings I have come across in this regard comes from Nonaka and Nishiguchi’s book, Knowledge Emergence: Social, Technical and Evolutionary Dimensions of Knowledge Creation (Oxford University Press, 2001). There is a chapter by Von Krogh, Ichijo and Nonaka entitled: ‘Bringing care into knowledge development of business organizations’. 

   The authors are very interested in human relationships inside organizations. “We believe that knowledge development, especially social knowledge development, of organizations, cannot be taken for granted since knowledge is very fragile in them. Since individual knowledge can easily be killed, organizational knowledge development as a social activity can be quite difficult, or in the worst case, impossible. Given this fragility, we argue that relationships in organizations must be given more attention.” 

    The quality of caring that exists in the relationships inside the organization has a direct impact on the quality of knowledge.

   In the article the authors use the term ‘thematisation’ to explain how explicit knowledge is developed (both individually and socially). In thematisation, “a language is learnt, words are being carefully selected for an experience, this linguistic choice is tested, misconceptions are corrected in interaction with others, new words are being invented to better convey the experiences in the eyes of the individual, and so on”. 

    In ‘low care’ organizations, the process of thematisation tends to be a private activity. Where it is not safe to share our foibles, we hide them and share results only when we are confident they can withstand scrutiny. These contrast with ‘high care’ organizations in which thematisation is a shared, group process. All of the lessons learnt and blind alleys are explored with others. We have the benefit of many minds to participate in thematisation, producing higher quality results. 

   In addition, because much of the groundwork of our thematisation is done in public in high care organizations, many more people are aware of what was learned in the process. Thus, more knowledge is available in the organization for others to use and apply. Importantly, it remains there when staff members leave, thus addressing the issue of retention of organizational knowledge. 


The kind of high quality collaboration that takes place in group thematisation relies on multiple, conflicting points of view coming together in a collective intelligence that honors the contribution of each perspective. Building community is often mistakenly thought of as creating an environment where everybody likes each other.  People perform effectively without mutual admiration. Yet, it is critical to establish an atmosphere of collective aspiration built upon respect and the capacity for each person to contribute to the group’s objectives.  Storytelling, called the “smallest portable context” by John Seely Brown, brings together differing points of view 

productively in the spirit of collaboration (see my interview with JSB, available through my website,, under “Publications.”)

This type of community storytelling invites the whole person into the workplace conversation—tacit knowledge and all. Storytelling in a community context holds the potential to revitalize the way we do business. The end product of this type of interaction is people working better together.  Communities are nurtured and social capital—the trust, reputation and shared values that contribute to a healthy culture— is increased and fortified.  Work teams gain a deeper appreciation of members’ strengths and weaknesses. The authentic participation of staff members creates a platform for a higher quality of work. 

Yes, this ancient form of storytelling can contribute to the world of business.  It brings our human community back to its deeper purposes. Storytelling brings business back to life.


Seth Kahan has been successfully leading change and improving performance in organizations for over 14 years. He can be reached on the web at

Seth helped spearhead the World Bank's enterprise-wide knowledge management initiative which received international recognition. He developed the first institution-wide community program, working with the president and senior management team. 

Seth has been selected to serve as a "Center Visionary" to the Center for Association Leadership in Washington, DC, for his pioneering work in organizational community development and storytelling. Today Seth is a write, speaker & consultant. As a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for Narrative Studies, he is writing a book on the applications of storytelling in organizations. 

Seth has been engaged by these organizations:
Center for Association Leadership
Conflict and Ethics Dispute Resolution in International Organizations
Council for Excellence in Government
Defense Information Systems Agency
Fairfax Partnership for Youth
George Mason University
Institute for International Research
National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers
Special Libraries Association
U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Intra-governmental Council of Chief Information Officers
World Bank 

Go to Seth Kahan's Jumpstart Storytelling session at the Smithsonian Associates, April 12, 2003

Tel 301 371-7100 :; www.Pelerei.Com
Steve Denning
Tel. 966 9392
 Tel  301 585-3610
Seth Kahan 
Tel 301 229-2221; Email:
Rob Creekmore
Tel. 703-435-4623

Tel.  202 364-5369;

To buy:
The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations
by Steve Denning (October 2000) Butterworth-Heinemann, Boston, USA

          Paperback - 192 pages. ISBN: 0750673559 
To read 
of :
The Squirrel: The Seven Highest Value Forms of Organizational Storytelling
          by Steve Denning (work in progress) 
RECOMMENDED LINKS Copyright © 2000 Stephen Denning-The views expressed on this website are those of Stephen Denning, and not necessarily those of any person or organization.