Intrinsic Knowledge, The Cubicle And Storytelling

You should know that for all my obsession with theory and methodology I very much value the kind of knowledge that comes with experience. The problem with that kind of knowledge, however, is that it is usually locked into the brain of the person who has accumulated said experience.

This is rather unfortunate, because it is really difficult for us to share information that we use instinctively. Usually we don’t even know how to access that information, although it subconsciously helps us make better decisions. Such kind of knowledge may be called intrinsic knowledge when it is opaque to our rational thinking, like our knowledge of how to walk without falling down.1 It may also be called idiosyncratic knowledge when it is less opaque, but still tied to the individual experience of the person possessing it.

Bottom line: When knowledge is not imparted to us in crystallized form such as a lecture, a book or, say, the oral tradition of nursery rhymes, we have a hard time putting it into a form ourselves that we may pass on.

A means to share our idiosyncratic knowledge is by recreating the experience from which we gained our insight and have our audience relive that experience. There is actually a method to this kind of creative expression that alleviates our burden to structure the information coherently, because we can fall back on structures that have been used successfully for thousands of years. The method I am referring to is storytelling.

Through a story we can create as-if scenarios in which the audience can emphatically align with the actions of our characters. Much an eye opening moment can be derived only from letting go of the blinders of our own experience and seeing the world from the perspective of a fictional hero. Because of our willingness to forego our own ego and our preconceived notion of how the world works when we feel with that hero we are open to make an epiphany our own that we would never have believed had someone tried to reason the same epiphany in an argument.

Now, storytelling is a tool in that it affords us with structures that we don’t have to invent ourselves. We know what a hero or a mentor is and what role they play in a story. But we must also be aware of the narrative shortcomings of such archetypical roles when we choose to employ them. All too often do we see lazy storytelling where tropes like the damsel in distress are rehashed, even though our modern society no longer actually sports the kind of gender roles in which the trope originated.2

But you need not even dive deep into storytelling history to use it meaningfully. Water cooler talk3 is a great example of the power of personal stories to disseminate information in office buildings:

You know the copy machine in the third, the old monster? Well, yesterday it gave me the 3115 again. Boy, I’ve had it with that thing. Anyway, I really needed the memo copied for the TPS reports asap. So I wedged open the A3 paper tray and put regular paper in, pushed it all the way to the left with an open stapler so that the spring would provide tension and then I held the tray shut. It actually worked, once I set the zoom to 130% you could not tell the difference.

That’s classic narrative structure right there. An unwilling hero faced with a monster and high stakes risks it all to overcome adversity with her wits alone. Not only am I sure that every one in that office will sing her tale (or listen to the radio at a reasonably high volume), but to the brave men and women in their cubicles the dreaded 3115 error is no longer a reason to wait for tech when things have to get done.


  1. Try explaining what exactly it is that you do at each step, orchestrating all those muscles to control your fall just enough so that the next step forward makes you catch your balance again. It takes toddlers and stroke patients years to perfect that feat! ↩︎

  2. Don’t get me started. Seriously, the misogynist idiocy that lives on in advertising, where apparently a bunch of drunk dudes all high five each other all day long and think a campaign like “it’s a girl thing” is a good idea, it is just mind boggling. There’s your argument for a quota right there. Somewhere in the decision making chain a woman needs to be in a position to put a stop to train wrecks like this. ↩︎

  3. If you are looking to improve knowledge management in a large facility, the easiest (and, if it’s tap water, cheapest) start is to create places where people from different sections will have repeated chance encounters for interaction during short periods of down time. The water cooler is by far the most important social media strategy of the Dilbert age. The science behind this surely merits a blog post of its own. ↩︎

  1. jochmann posted this
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