Adults and organisations: learning and leading through stories

by alison

Winter is finally upon us in Saskatchewan!

This past week our guest presenter in EC&I 831 was Alan Levine.  Alan demonstrated a number of online tools that can be used to help students to develop their own narratives. Since I deal with adult learners and organisational learning, I’m always looking to connect our course content to my workplace, and in this case, narrative learning has a direct connection to not only adult learning but also to organisations themselves. According to Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner (2007) narrative learning became popular in education in the 1990s and was adopted by adult education shortly thereafter. Adult education was drawn to narrative learning through the link between storytelling, wisdom and experience. Also, as we know, one of Knowles’ assumptions of adult learners is that they bring a wealth of experience to their learning (note: criticisms of this assumption do argue that this experience is variable and they point out that what has been learned in the past may not have been accurate). There are a number of other reasons that storytelling is important to adult learning—cultural being one example—but it all comes down to the observation that Jonassen and Hernandez-Serrano made in 2002 that narrative learning is “the oldest and most natural form of sense making,” (as cited in Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner, 2007, p. 208). Today in adult learning there are typically three ways that narratives are used: in ‘storying’ content being studied, storytelling and through autobiography.

Organisations also create their own mythologies in order to develop their own shared culture, norms and values (even if they’re not always the complete truth!) and it bears mentioning that while these shared myths can unite members under a shared vision of social betterment, for example, there can be a dark side to that: it can be used as a form of control and it can silence voices on the periphery of the firm. Who creates these organisational myths? Often this is a role that leaders play in order to reinvigorate or establish the organisational cultural context. Parry & Hansen (2007), however, argue that organisational stories can display leadership too:

Stories have an impact on audiences in the same way that leadership has an impact. Stories are enduring. They can be revitalized because they are not subject to the relatively static constraints of personality and reputation. Stories can spread and proliferate much like a social contagion. Because of this, their leadership effect can be widespread. Concomitant with this realization is our assertion that management should focus efforts on building better stories just as much as on building better ‘leaders’. (p. 293)

The authors argue that by viewing the stories themselves as leaders, the idea of leadership development can be decoupled from being considered the development of set of a behaviours, moving away from the idea of leadership as people development: “In seeing stories as leadership, our attention is drawn toward leadership effect and its reception by followers,” (Parry & Hansen, 2007, p. 294). This decoupling also allows for context in stories (and meaning to be drawn from the context), which provides followers with more autonomy to reflect and judge the story for themselves. Parry & Hansen (2007) suggest stories that spread through an organisation and include context are also less likely to be distorted for hidden agendas.

On a lighter note

For funsies, I’m up to the challenge of telling a story using one of the tools Alan shared with us on Tuesday. Here’s a Storify of what the hive mind is posting about Saskatchewan on Twitter at the moment… enjoy!

View the story “Saskatchewan: A Day in the Life on Twitter” on Storify

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