Telling stories to “work the past”

by Jay Cross on February 17, 2009


Working the Past by Charlotte Linde

Linde is an anthropologist who worked on a three-year study of a large insurance company as part of a team from the Institute for Research on Learning.

She’s right that stories are an important way for organizaitons to find and uphold their identities. Want to preserve and protect a corporate culture? Tell and retell stories.

Within business and management studies, the question of the past and its presetvation is both a concern — and also a business opportunity. As U.S. businesses continue the more than a decade of downsizing that we have seen since the arly 1990s, and as the cohort of the baby boomer generation begins to reach retirement age, there is a concern about losing knowledge central to the operation of the business.

After all, how much cutting and outsourcing can a company live through until the essence of that company disappears?

(The insurance company Linde studied) is not unusal in having its narratives focus on identity: who the company is, what qualities the company and its members are expected to exhibit, how the changes in the present are necessary to preserve the fundamental nature of the company.

The past is a mental construct, a variable rather than a constant.

Identity and memory are acts of construction. The past is not inert, not written in stone as we used to say before the digital age. …various representations of past events are brought into the present to shape the future by continuous work, large-scale work, and intimate work, by collectivites and individuals.

In the rush to rapid eLearning and small chunks, let’s not forget the importance of the stories and myths that reify the soul of the organization.

By the way, if I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t buy this book. The insurance company is pre-web, so the potential of YouTube stories and so forth doesn’t come up. Also, I had to read way too many words to extract the book’s meaning.

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