The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge‐era Organizations

Robert F. Dennehy (Lubin School of Business, Pace University, New York, USA)

Journal of Organizational Change Management

ISSN: 0953-4814

Article publication date: 1 December 2001




Dennehy, R.F. (2001), "The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge‐era Organizations", Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 14 No. 6, pp. 609-614.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Question: How do you get people to use a computerized knowledge management system?

Answer: Story‐telling.

Question: How do you solve a high‐tech problem?

Answer: Use a low‐tech solution.

These answers and questions provide the core of Stephen Denning’s book on story‐telling. His story begins over a brown bag lunch at the World Bank, when his manager asks him to look into the issue of information in our organization. We follow his odyssey as he puts together a coalition of colleagues who understand how valuable the whole approach of sharing know‐how and expertise could be and could help transform the organization’s strategy.

Denning coins the team springboard story to characterize his approach. This type of story enables a leap in understanding by the audience, so as to grasp how an organization or community or complex systems may change. Denning wants to sell, influence, even manipulate.

This book seems to be the debut of the Springboard story. I have not noticed the term in the academic or popular literature.

The book tracks his use of three case stories to achieve his ends:

  1. 1.

    (1) The Zambia Story. In June 1995, a health worker in Kamana, Zambia, logged on to the Center for Disease Control Web site and got the answer to a question on how to treat malaria.

  2. 2.

    (2) The Chile Story. A team leader in Santiago, Chile contacted the advisory service of the education network and asked the question: quick, what is your experience in other countries in dealing with the demands of schoolteachers? The advisory service was able to assemble experiences from staff working in other countries that were analogous to the situation of Chile. The material was sent to Santiago electronically and the team was able to synthesize the material quickly.

  3. 3.

    (3) The Yemen Story. The client in Yemen urgently wanted to know what he should do about building an information system for its education services. The help desk of the education sector ascertained that the best and most relevant piece of expertise on the subject was in Kenya, Africa. The results of the Kenya work were then faxed to Yemen within a 48‐hours time frame.

Denning then gathers more World Bank stories and takes the show on the road. Most of the remainder of the book chronicles his globe‐trotting to sell the idea of electronic retrieval through springboard stories.

To whom does Denning turn for inspiration? His references include Kotter, Weick and theorists from the knowledge management field. But most of the references are from the philosophical and linguistic world. Allusions to the academic story‐telling authors are missing – no Boje, Martin, Wilkins, Morgan, Barry, Gephart, Pondy, Van Maanan, Czarniawska, not even Campbell.

Enthused as Denning is about his springboard, he was not able to convince a “well‐known research organization” about his story‐telling ideas. He was rebuffed as being illogical and unscientific. I wonder whether Denning’s limited background in story‐telling craft contributed to the disaster.

Denning was able to estrange himself from a research organization and he conflicted with the professional story‐telling community. Denning traveled to Jonesborough, Tennessee, home of the National Story‐telling Association. There he told one of his springboard stories to someone who appeared to be the venerable Jimmy Neil Smith, who is known as a Master Story‐teller. In a subsequent communication, the author indicates that he had not spoken to Smith but to another official. In any case, the official responded that he did not hear a story. There was no building‐up of the characters, no description of the look in the eye of the client, or smell of highway construction. As a result, he never got into the story.

Denning counters that the springboard story is not something in which you immerse yourself. It is not something in which you want the audience to get interested for any length of time. It is not even very fascinating in itself – rather it is brief and textureless.

Denning goes on to denigrate the professional story‐teller as a raconteur, an entertainer, joke‐teller. It is a formal performance. Tah‐Dah!

Denning does specify his technique in three appendices, which he calls Annexes 1, 2, and 3. He outlines the element, performance characteristics and visual aids. Professional story‐tellers would be chagrined with the inclusion of visual aids, since they consider them as intrusions between the teller and the audience.

It seems that Denning is successful with his unique brand of story‐telling. In his own organization he has been able to use vignettes and examples to move people to use electronic depositories. He is circumspect in identifying his approach as springboard story‐telling to reflect his stated purpose. Despite disagreements from some professional circles, I must wish him well in his organizational change efforts.

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