Storytelling In Knowledge Management

Unlocking the tacit knowledge in an organization is instrumental in accelerating learning. In the recently released report, Implement Storytelling In Your Agile Knowledge Management Practice, we outline steps that organizations can take to use storytelling in an agile knowledge management (KM) practice to engage knowledge workers in making connections across the organization and learning from other teams.

I recently spoke with Amgen Director of Knowledge Management Bryan Yee to discuss how he built his storytelling practice and transformed learning and knowledge-sharing at the biotech giant.

Julie: How is the storytelling practice that you run different than data storytelling?

Bryan: The storytelling that we are doing isn’t necessarily data storytelling. There may be stories about data, but we’re capturing stories taking place as drug developers design and run clinical trials. It’s an expensive, long enterprise that has high rewards for patients. But there’s so much learned throughout that we want to make sure we capture and share.

The Art Of Storytelling

Julie: I’m positioning research around this type of storytelling. It is the learning about what we learn while doing our work. Did our processes work? Was our hypothesis correct? Or maybe it is a cross-team collaboration success. What did we learn from how the teams work together?

How do you identify learning opportunities worth sharing?

Bryan: At the beginning, I had to go fishing for them, to be honest. It took a little bit of organizational savvy, and I had a good idea about where to look for sharing opportunities. I knew that there was a lot of learning taking place, but the challenge was that there was not an easy way for teams to share it, and even if they tried, there may not have been high confidence that it would have been used. I think that’s true of any organization early on in this exercise. The stories or learnings are out there. They just need to be captured.

We also took a topic-driven approach. I would ask senior leaders, “What are the things that are important to your drug developers this year?” Once I had a topic that I knew our leaders cared about, I knew where to go looking for the story.

Julie: How do you turn an opportunity worth sharing into an actual story?

Bryan: You must know how to ask good questions. Interviewing is one of the hardest skills, in my opinion. And the second-hardest part of the process is translating an interview into consumable and accessible knowledge. We focus on identifying learnings across many teams that align with the topics we care about. Then we reduce the friction that teams feel in sharing their learnings by pairing a storyteller from our team to capture their learnings via an interview, which we then translate into something that benefits a broad audience. Finally, we ensure that none of this falls into a filing cabinet, never to be seen again, by using our platform to share these things.

Throughout the course of this — by asking really good questions when we interview teams, by creating a highly accessible output that communicates context, by creating connection points to people and things, and by telling their story — we are subtly teaching the teams that share their learnings with us how to share knowledge in just enough detail so that it sticks and makes an impact.

Julie: Do you have a team of individuals, or is this something you are leading and guiding on your own?

Bryan: It’s a volunteer team of staff that have raised their hand to say, as a career development opportunity, I want to learn how to be a storyteller, capture some stories, and contribute them to the platform. Over the last two years, nearly 20 staff have taken on this opportunity from our R&D organization.

What is wonderful is that in addition to capturing learnings and sharing them via stories, this team is playing a primary role in changing the culture of how we share in real-time. I think we fool ourselves into thinking that, because we’ve met in a meeting and had a conversation, that knowledge has been transferred. But just because we’ve met does not mean knowledge has been transferred or shared with individuals who would benefit from that knowledge.

The storytellers that join our team learn how to avoid overly general language or “weasel words,” as we like to call them. For example, learning that often comes up in interviews is that teams should plan earlier and work cross-functionally. We dig deeper to understand what “early” means and who is part of the cross-functional interactions they are describing. When done thoughtfully, storytelling moves us away from what I like to call corporate buzzword bingo to capture stuff in this very tacit-to-explicit translation.

The nature of science: You want to fail quickly so you can move on and test that next hypothesis. And I don’t think it’s unique to us to talk about when things don’t go well. We’re tapping into our greatest learnings, which are things that happen that can be retold. Not everything’s the details — they need to know just enough below the surface. We want to create learnings that use accessible language that then connects the learnings to the right people in a meaningful way.

The Science Of Storytelling

Julie: When you talk about connecting these learnings in story form, how do you create the metadata to connect a particular individual to relevant stories?

Bryan: The metadata is critical, especially when you gain volume. And the metadata also pays dividends because we can then use it to match content to users based on what they are working on, their role, and where their work is in the lifecycle. Every learning has a lifecycle. We share things broadly and make them readily available to ensure general, across-the-board awareness and access. But then, the power to target or personalize the experience with our growing body of knowledge comes from the metadata behind every story. Our stories are written in a narrative format, but on the back end, we are capturing “Who is this most relevant to? Who was a part of telling the story? And what role did they play?”

Then we also capture “the learnings that are described in the story”: “When are the discrete phases and types of work?” We also capture the “applicable audience” and their “role in designing or executing a clinical trial.” This gives these learnings or stories a second life. They are always available for recall if someone were to go searching for them, and that’s one area where metadata can help. But then we can also use it to identify other projects that are in progress, that are about to approach milestones where knowing these learnings ahead of time could be useful, prompting us to nudge specific roles on those teams with these learnings. Essentially, we ensure that the right learning gets to the right person at the right time. A thoughtful set of metadata behind the scenes is essential to connecting those learnings to those who can most benefit.

Julie: Do you have any pre-established links between stories? Or do you allow the link to be driven by the story’s complexity? Or by the individual?

Bryan: I tell my team to shoot for three- to five-minute reads. Because at that point, if you go beyond that, you’ve probably got too big of a story. The reality is that people probably won’t even get through it. And we focus on highly accessible language.

We also structure our stories to prompt readers with a “next best action.” If someone wants to go deeper, where would you send them? The average person familiar with the space can determine if this is relevant to them and whether or not to take that next action.

Julie: Can you talk a little bit more about the forming part of storytelling? What is your process for working with someone?

Bryan: We typically spend 30 minutes in an interview and try to understand what happened. What did they learn? What would they do differently? Who do they think this learning applies to? Is it universal learning? Is it only learning for specific areas? We try to chase down the story in a 30-minute time frame, since this is not a mandated step in any of our processes. Most people will give you 30 minutes of their time. If you ask really good questions, and even better follow-up questions, they’ll have confidence in your ability to summarize something very complicated.

Our last question is always “Who else is on your cross-functional team? Who do you think would be a good person to talk to next?” And we do this for the specific purpose of not getting a one-sided view because, like many companies, you can get siloed thinking when you talk to one part of the business. We like to walk around the learning. Once we have about three to five perspectives, we have enough for a first draft. We do an internal review of the draft as a team. We will ask, “What did you mean by that? I need you to help me understand this.” And some things require us to go back to the team for more information. But then, once we are happy with a draft, we get all the people interviewed to review it to see if the story represents the learning.

Building An Inclusive Storytelling Practice

Julie: In my model for storytelling, I have identified four significant sources of learning: retrospectives, projects, cross-team collaboration, and innovations. Is there anything else your team focuses on as a potential source?

Bryan: We also capture open questions. Our teams may not have figured it all out yet, but their development process has led them to ask something that they didn’t get to ask. And that’s important: helping someone else ask a better question. If you help people ask more profound questions, we believe you get better outcomes. We help the readers of our learnings think about those open questions from a different perspective because we have planted a question. Sometimes, helping someone ask a question you don’t know the answer to is a part of the learning process.

Julie: Bryan, thank you for speaking with me on this topic. It’s great to speak with someone putting these theories into practice and achieving results. Is there anything else you would like to share?

Bryan: In a large company, there are often only so many ways to share knowledge at scale. It might be at the big all-hands meeting or the quarterly meeting. And in these larger meeting settings, only the “really, really exciting” learnings get shared, often at a high level. It’s only the successes that we want to talk about, oftentimes, the “happy stuff.” As we’ve opened up a platform for discovering knowledge and sharing learnings, I’m incredibly proud to have accomplished creating an inclusive environment where everyone has a voice to share what they have learned.

Our ultimate goal is to find the learnings, surface and capture them, and connect those stories to the right people at the right time on the right topics. We are doing this by creating a career development opportunity for staff, where we teach them the art of storytelling and then point them to high-value learning on topics that matter. In the end, we’re helping our teams ask better questions and creating connections between teams that have learned something and teams that would benefit from those learnings. Regardless of whether you are the “deemed” expert, we recognize that everyone has had experiences and that their learnings are valuable. What has been missing are ways to reduce the friction to capture those learnings and surface them to maximize their impact, and our team has placed itself at the center of that. It truly is a rewarding way to contribute towards advancing our company’s mission to serve patients.

Julie: That is an excellent point. Inclusive is about not imposing a filter on those learnings — only taking the most critical learnings from our experts — but building a practice inclusive of all learnings from various perspectives and different people. Thank you again, Bryan, for sharing what you have learned. Hopefully, we can help others build a successful storytelling practice as part of their agile KM practice.

Want to take the “next click” on storytelling? See my recently released report, Implement Storytelling In Your Agile Knowledge Management Practice.

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