KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Stories in two flavours

with 7 comments

I got lots of great comments on my recent blog post “If I told you a story, would you believe me?” In reading them I realize there are a couple of things I should have elaborated further on stories.

First of all I do believe that collecting personal narratives or testimonies is a legitimate research methodology, that while obviously somewhat subjective can nevertheless be used to collect valuable information and insights in a way that is complementary to more quantitative methods of research. Also as Jennifer and Max pointed out, if you systematically collect a large number of stories this can be particularly vaulable as it can help turn the qualitative data into quantitative and help cancel out some of the bias that might occur when only collecting a small number of stories. I get bothered when I hear quantitative researchers say that the plural of anecdote is not data, because done well it is. In my last job in UNICEF we were exploring the systematic collection of stories to help measure the value of communities of practice – see this blog. This was based on an approach developed by Etienne Wenger and Beverly Trayner. Unfortunately I left UNICEF before this could come to fruition and am unsure of where this project stands now.

It is important however to draw a distinction between collecting testimonials from partners/beneficiaries using some kind of standardized approach, while attempting to keep in listening mode one the one hand, and setting out to deliberately craft a storyline (even if based on “the facts” as they were recounted) that seeks to carry a specific message in order to transfer a piece of knowledge or to persuade someone to engage or take action on the other. Both of these have their uses, but the first is most useful in terms of research and evidence gathering whereas the second is most useful in terms of engagement and persuasion. I think some of the problems with stories can be due to a misperception of, or poor trade-off between the two different approaches and objectives.

In practice we often try to use both approaches together, that is we try to collect “authentic” stories, but then we also selectively pick those which serve our purposes, or selectively edit those to better make the point we are using the story to illustrate. And the level to which a story is a faithful representation or a carefully selected and edited story line is not always immediately clear to our audience (or perhaps even sometime to ourselves). Often we do this for expediency “well we are doing this great qualitative research that uses authentic voices, but we can also make use of the stories in our fundraising material”.

A particular KM related example of this mixed approach is in how good practice case studies are used. Here the main aim is to try to faithfully document what happened in a project and what positive features we can learn from and potentially replicate. But at the same time we risk to overemphasize the positives in an experience without really taking adequate account of the negatives as an equally valid learning opportunity, especially if we are publishing externally.

I think that identifying and sharing success stories is valuable in that it can help spread good ideas and demonstrate that positive change is possible (along the lines of Charles Kenny’s “Getting Better“) – but because of the emotional aspect of how we react to material presented in a story format we need to be especially careful not to use stories to manipulate rather than to inform, and as consumers of scripted stories, while it’s OK to be moved by a story but we also need to validate. And we need to be clear in our communication where the story comes from and how it was prepared. Good practice or success stories can be used to indicate what is possible, but its deceptive when these are used by fundraisers to imply that this is exactly what their donation will lead to.

Of course while stories can be used to create positive emotions about change, they can also be used to reinforce negative stereotypes such as in the painting of a desperate picture of the developing wold in order to mobilize more funds. The risks of this were nicely deconstructed in “The Worf effect and NGO rhetoric” by Matt of Aid Thoughts. And the dangers of relying on a single story, and on one created by outsiders rather than a people’s own voice are eloquently described in this great TED talk “The danger of a single story” from Chimamanda Adichie, a storyteller heself.

So I stick by my initial conclusion, listen , collect, allow yourself to be informed and to be moved, but also cross check and validate.


Written by Ian Thorpe

March 5, 2012 at 8:55 am

7 Responses

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  1. Good post on the distinctions that should be (but aren’t) drawn between stories as information and stories as marketing material.

    I think it was Owen Barder who mapped out the full NGO roles landscape in a paper and proposed that the only entity that can really do justice as a collator of authentic stories (as data) is somebody who has no vested interest in picking positive stories over negative ones…. someone who (for example) is a marketplace for donors looking to pick whomever seems to be doing good work — like GlobalGiving. That’s probably why we were the first to really scale this idea. Now I spend all my time trying to give the data away to organizations who don’t think that unfiltered community feedback has any value for them…. yet. Things will change. Someday people will never believe that organizations once operated without continuous global feedback from their constituent communities.

    Marc Maxson

    March 5, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    • “Someday people will never believe that organizations once operated without continuous global feedback from their constituent communities.” – I’m 100% with you on this one!

      Ian Thorpe

      March 5, 2012 at 12:33 pm

  2. Hi Ian. I see in the way that you write a certain bias towards science as “the” model for valid knowledge. I also see that you get a little bit of heat for even suggesting that stories might have some importance.

    What I see too often in development is the idea that the scientist’s laboratory is the ideal factory for knowledge. Though such knowledge is no doubt useful, it has its limits. Development workers are dealing with people, not quarks, and they are dealing with particular settings, not attempting to find universality. They need to make practical decisions based on finite data in finite time frames, with social consequences.

    Another model of knowledge creation is the courtroom. In the courtroom, we have:

    • experienced judges (i.e. experts)
    • a jury (the experts should not make judgements independent of the public’s view)
    • rules of evidence (what is admissible, and what is not)
    • a courtroom (a place where all the evidence on a particular case is collected and made accessible to all)
    • the law (a collection of rules and precedents that can be called upon, but do not themselves determine that matter.)
    • advocacy (you need to hear both sides of the story)
    • power imbalances (money buys better evidence, as it does everywhere)

    And above all, we have stories, told by witnesses, including expert witnesses. These stories need to be heard. They can be doubted, and cross-examined.

    But to not hear them would be to invalidate the function of the court in rendering practical judgements with social impacts.

    People who are against stories tend to hold a view in which the “population” is being “treated”, and this treatment needs to be validated “objectively.” That may work for epidemics. But it’s not development, and it’s not a just way to deal with other cultures, nations or people.

    David W

    March 5, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    • @david interesting that you should say I have a “bias for science”. I started out as a statistician and technology person in my early career, firmly in the science camp, but over time I have seen more and more the importance of tacit and subjective knowledge, and a good proportion of the posts on this blog are about the limitations of more traditional approaches to knowing (e.g. the truth is out there). I’ve also spent the last few years unsuccessfully persuading my previous employer of the value of non-traditional knowledge as a complement to “scientific” research and hard evidence.

      I think your analogy of knowledge as a courtroom is a rather good one (with the proviso that it’s just a metaphor) – everyone has their opportunity to tell their side of the story both expert, witness, victim and accused – but also in the end some person (judge) or collective (jury) make a judgement based on the evidence presented – with the burden of proof on those who are prosecuting the case. And we hope that in the vast majority of cases the judgement arrived at is fair, but we know also that its not infallible.

      Ian Thorpe

      March 6, 2012 at 6:06 am

  3. Hi Ian, great two posts, indeed. As I know of your professional past as statistician, as well as your present as “KM professional” (may I say?), it was great to read -although no a surprise- that ” I get bothered when I hear quantitative researchers say that the plural of anecdote is not data, because done well it is.” I wonder if you have heard about the Most Significant Change approach, because I guess it could be easily linked with the stuff you are discussing here. You may find the original and many translation of the MSC manual here:

    Pablo Rodriguez-Bilella

    March 6, 2012 at 9:45 am

    • @pablo Yes, I’ve been wanting to delve further into MSC. I’m particularly interested in how it might also be applied to look at organizational and systemic change. Interestingly enough I found out that I went to high school with one of the co-authors of the technique (Jess Dart) which reminds me of how small this world is.

      Ian Thorpe

      March 6, 2012 at 10:51 am

  4. […] I couldn’t have found a better illustration of my last two blog posts on storytelling. KONY2012 nicely illustrates on the one hand how the most effective way […]

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