Sunday, October 01, 2006

More stories for knowledge management

I went to the a lecture by Karl-Erik Sveiby – actually it was the UK launch of his new book Treading Lightly.  Karl-Erik is a professor of Knowledge Management at Hanken Business School in Helsinki and his new book discusses the use of stories by Australian aboriginal tribes to communicate knowledge over 60,000 years.

The story of how the Nhunggabarra tribe passed knowledge from generation to generation through the stories is also the story of how they kept their tribal law and the basis of their whole society.  At first I thought this form of story telling would be similar to that discussed by Stephen Denning in The Springboard and other books but it turns out there are differences.

For Denning stories are a way of communicating knowledge and creating change.  To this end the stories are designed so the listener can imagine themselves in the story and draw lessons quickly.  In contrast, the stories Sveiby talks about are used to communicate continuity and law, the stories are deeper and it takes months or years for the listener understand the full meaning of the stories.

While Sveiby and Denning seem to outline different types and stories and different uses for them I don’t think the two forms are mutually exclusive.  For Sveiby the stories are about passing on a culture, storing knowledge and ensuring sustainability.  For Denning stores are about creating change and refocusing knowledge.  Sveiby’s stories are thousands of years old while Denning's are new.  It just comes down to how you design your stories and what you are trying to achieve.

The important point is that people communicate and manage their knowledge through stories and these stories can be used for a variety of purposes.

There is a link to Patterns here.  In The Timeless Way of Building Christopher Alexander suggests that patterns for building are handed down from generation to generation – something that was largely a verbal tradition.  He also suggest that, particularly in the twentieth century, some patterns have been lost.  Therefore, to capture patterns for the future we need to document and formalize our patterns so we can communicate the designs.

I have been suggesting for a while that Patterns are a form of story.  In making this suggestion I have drawn on the work of Denning.  Now it seems that Sveiby’s description of stories also fit – Patterns are a means by which a culture can capture and pass on knowledge to future generations.  Which all goes to add support to the theory that Design Patterns are a form of story that contains knowledge.

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