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Learning Through Storytelling, Not Documents
Knowledge Management Meets AI

By Roger C. Schank / October 2010

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Learning Through Storytelling, Not Documents

Knowledge Management Meets AI

October 5, 2010

As companies grow, in the age of the internet, they are drowning in electronic documents. Some people get so many e-mails each day that they don't even bother opening them. People write memos, create project plans, issue report upon report, but no one can keep up. Document management systems have been created in an attempt to handle all this traffic, but eventually these systems are overwhelmed with documents, and finding what you want is difficult if not impossible for the casual user.

To understand the root of the problem it helps to think about cavemen. People haven't changed all that much across the past 50,000 years. The goals of cavemen (taking care of their loved ones, living as well as possible, avoiding danger, reacting to bad events by creating new plans and so on) are really the same today as they were back then. Similarly, communication, learning, and human relationship issues, are also the same. Yes, they didn't have the internet. Neither did my parents. But somehow people have always managed to communicate and learn from each other. How? By telling stories.

Cavemen told stories around campfires or found the wisest elder and asked him questions. When I was younger, I relied on the phone to get a story from my father when I needed advice. My kids get stories from me by instant message. The medium may have changed, but story telling remains the same.

Story telling has some interesting properties, one of which is that people rarely tire of telling their stories. Another is the circumstances that inspire us to tell our stories - namely things we may have just heard, saw, did, been asked, or told. People love telling stories listening to them. Most people have lots of stories to tell. Some, who think more deeply about their experiences than others, may have better stories to tell, but everyone has them and there is much to learn from listening to them.

Somehow the age of documents has perverted all this. Now 20 stories may be hidden in a single document and all the typically fun and memorable details that should have been there may be encoded in a way that is neither memorable nor findable. The desktop metaphor that was given to us by the original GUI designers (some of whom worked for me back in the old days, oddly enough) has only exacerbated this problem by encouraging us to create documents (like the one I am writing now, for example.)

I would rather not write this. I would rather tell you a story. If you ran into me in the hall and mentioned knowledge management, that is exactly what I would do.

I performed an experiment recently. I wrote down 100 of my favorite stories that I tell about lessons I have learned through experience, limiting myself to two typewritten pages for each story. Then I tried reading them to people to see what they thought. I found that it took three times longer to read what I had written than it would have taken me to tell the same story the way I would have done in a typical conversation. Writing rules and professional styles make written stories less memorable, less interesting, and too long.

It is the idea of documents itself that is the problem. Official documents are nice, but they are no way to communicate. I have been saying this for many years to companies. They listen and then they produce more documents. But recently, one very large company has decided to take a serious look at doing what I have been suggesting. We have so far collected more than 1,000 video stories that were told to us by their best people. Many are very important for everyone in this company to hear. Some are important to be heard just in time when employees are in specific situations.

We are building a system where these stories will find you while you are engaged in doing something that is part of your job. As long as we know what you are worrying about, we can send advice as needed. To do this, we have to index the stories and link those indices to known tasks. In a big company with clear procedures and long-term planning, this is not only possible, but also practical. We can deliver just-in-time video-based stories from company experts to anyone who is stuck and needs a little advice.

It is a huge project, but very exciting.

About the Author
Roger C. Schank is one of the world's leading researchers in AI, learning theory, cognitive science, and the building of virtual learning environments. He is president and CEO of Socratic Arts, a company whose goal is to design and implement low-cost story-based learning by doing curricula in schools, universities, and corporations.


  • Tue, 23 Nov 2010
    Post by Taruna Goel

    Having been a corporate trainer for 11 years, I can comfortably say that stories and anecdotes work far better than asking the participants to read a concept or a case study! From my personal experience, I remember all the stories that my father has shared with me over the years. Even now, he prefers sharing stories to help me solve the problem at hand or to share his opinion about an issue. I try to do the same with my daughter.

    Stories are immersive in nature and allow us to become a part of the narrative. Because they are interesting and real, we tend to remember them far more than reading a book. Stories have been used for ages and were the only tool/technique for knowledge management back then. Stories continue to exist in rural India where the information technology tsunami hasn't hit yet. People gather around the central village tree and the elders of the village talk about their experiences and share knowledge with the community at large. But in this digital world, stories are losing themselves. With less face-to-face interactions and 'knowledge' being defined in terms of documents and pages, there is even less scope to share stories.

    I hope that projects such as those initiated by you bring back the stories to the corporate world. A story goes a long way...ask any child!

  • Thu, 18 Nov 2010
    Post by [email protected]

    I am agree with you ...really. By my own experience also I felt that, learning through storylining is more efficient and easy in comparison to documents...

  • Mon, 18 Oct 2010
    Post by Linda Lucas

    For a long time (in schools and the workplace) we have ignored visual communications. Presenting ideas visually can help capture ideas in a holistic way and make them instantly recognizable. I once held a meeting where I used a mind-map type drawing to present a proposal. The meeting was about 20 minutes long and everyone was instantly onside. With verbal communications (long reports and or long-winded speeches), people lose interest, get distracted, think only about the latest point you have made, rather than the bigger picture you might be building towards. These days I am also researching graphic novels and I am amazed at how these can enhance the "storytelling" genre. We are novices (in the education field) at understanding the power of depicting ideas visually.

  • Fri, 08 Oct 2010
    Post by Alexis Hevia

    As a System Engineering student I was taught to use the Rational Unified Process (RUP) for developing software projects. However, my experience is that the enormous amount of documents soon become hard to manage and counterproductive. I prefer the XP way, which uses simple user stories to keep track of requirements, so I can relate with this article.

  • Wed, 06 Oct 2010
    Post by Allen Evitts

    I was a storyteller long before a project manager; your work puts voice to what I'd believed and supported in my professional career for years. I'm building a company focused on communication and teaching professional project managers to recognize, develop and exercise their communication skills; stories are a huge part of that effort. I hear the muse in your words and look forward to stories of the past and the future. Bravo, Sir. Bravo.