Becoming a storytelling organisation

2 people in conversation at a conference, by Ed Yourdon

Image: Ed Yourdon CC-BY-SA

There’s a temptation to view organisations as machines; a series of inputs with a number of people in a particular structure performing certain tasks to achieves a desired outcome. Anyone who works in an organisation of any size knows that that is much too simplistic. Life at work is messier than that!

I’m interested in how stories might be a way of capturing and communicating some of that vibrant messiness.

Back in November, I got to wear the funny hat and gown and walk across a stage to receive the handshakes of the dean of faculty and Prof Robert Winston for passing my Masters. I’d done my dissertation on digital storytelling in organisations.

I’ve now had over six months to reflect on what I’d written and I’m in a good position to judge whether what I wrote about was something worth doing.

Thankfully, I’m confident the answer is still yes. This is a short video summary of what I did:

Stories are an integral part of any organisation.

Much management activity goes into increasing productivity and reducing risk and unpredictability, especially in the work force; making “the machine” work more effectively. Many strategic and day-to-day decisions are made that rely on an understanding of an organisation that is based on systems thinking.

If you try to look at organisations as a collection of things like structures, roles, mission statements and the balance sheet you are only ever going to get a small part of the picture. Authors like Boje (2008), Gabriel (2000) and Reissner (2010) point out that the real situation is much more complex than that.

Organisations are made up of people who form relationships and make decisions based on how they come to understand the world around them. It’s stories that form the basis of that understanding, helping us to establish meaning about events (Bruner, 2004).

Stories and storytelling play numerous roles in an organisation:

Leadership – stories can be used deliberately as a tool to clearly communicate a vision as a way of motivating people. Nancy Duarte talks about this in her Thinking Digital conference talk from 2011.

Dealing with change – work is a balance between routine and disruption, and disruption is difficult to deal with on a personal as well as a corporate scale. Change affects what we do but also how we see ourselves. We deal with these upheavals by trying to make sense of how they fit into the bigger picture and our own personal narratives. Reissner (2010) writes about how a person’s ability to cope with change comes down to the types of narratives they create about their experiences.

Communication – we’ve been using stories to communicate complicated ideas for a long time now. Stories can play a role in bridging gaps and developing understanding between different groups in an organisation or with the people outside it.

What Netskills is doing

At Netskills we like to “walk the walk” and storytelling is becoming a big part of how we do things here. We’re trying to find new ways to talk effectively about what we do with the outside world and also to better understand ourselves as a team. In addition to the workshops and projects we do around digital storytelling here’s how we’re approaching it:

  • We’ve made storytelling one of our strategic priorities. Change like this has to take place right through an organisation, not just at the personal level. We’ve created a strategic priority around storytelling and digital storytelling so that we can encourage activity in this area and hold ourselves accountable for how well we do with it.
  • Stories in quarterly meetings. We still do the traditional thing in our quarterly reviews of looking at achievement against objectives and how well the finances are doing, but a big chunk of our quarterly meetings is given over to hearing about the experiences of colleagues working on various projects.
  • The Voices blog. Storytelling is about opening up and showing a human face which we hope we’re achieving with this blog. Our vision was to create an “open kitchen” where people could see behind the scenes on the things we were doing and talking about.
  • Developing our skills. There’s a lot of interest around the team about storytelling for teaching and learning, public engagement and personal reflection. Three of us run training sessions and conference presentations on digital storytelling. Two of our colleagues have been through the 3-day Digital Storytelling Masterclass and I hope more will follow. Even if we don’t produce many digital stories, it still helps with learning to communicate in more effective ways.

Much of what we do is about helping others to develop their own practice so it’s really important that we can point to our own experiences, showing that we have confidence in our own ideas.

Real, demonstrable change will happen over the long term but it’s really interesting to see how using storytelling approaches is already changing the way we work together and the support we give to others.


Boje, D. M. (2008). Storytelling organizations. Sage Publications Ltd, London.

Bruner, J. (2004). Life as Narrative, Social Research 71(3), 691–711.

Gabriel, Y. (2000). Storytelling in Organizations: Facts, Figures and Fantasies. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Reissner, S. C. (2010). Change, meaning and identity at the workplace. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 23(3), 287–299.