Sensemaking and organisational storytelling

Van der Rede, Liesl (2007-03)

Thesis (MPhil (Information Science))--University of Stellenbosch, 2007.


The question of how organisation leaders can successfully guide people through times of significant change, and thus transform organisations to operate successfully in a changed environment, has many potential responses. This thesis examines one possible response, namely storytelling, as a potentially useful management tool in the conditions introduced by organisational change. In particular, the reported success of Stephen Denning’s use of so-called springboard stories is subjected to an analysis from the point of view of sensemaking theory as proposed by Karl Weick, using the seven properties of sensemaking as a basis of the analysis. Chapter 1 introduces the sensemaking theory of Karl Weick, a theory which explains the process people engage when they attempt to manage complexity in their world. In particular, this chapter examines the seven properties of sensemaking, as identified by Weick as inherent in the process. Accepting the proposition that organisational complexity is responded to at an individual level, this chapter examines the properties at both that level, as well as in the specific context introduced by organisations. In addition, the implications of the seven properties for organisational leadership are considered, particularly during times of significant organisational change. Stephen Denning’s reported experiences with the use of storytelling during transformation in the World Bank are examined in chapter 2. Denning has become renowned in the field of storytelling, since his development and use of springboard stories specifically as a means of igniting action during organisational change. In addition to their specific purpose, all springboard stories have unique defining characteristics, relating to structure, format, content, style, length and timing. Each is examined in some detail, along with other contributing factors such as context, plausibility and relationships between the storyteller and listeners. Both successful and unsuccessful uses of springboard stories are considered, to obtain an understanding of the experienced effect of the explicitly noted characteristics of the stories and the storytelling encounter, as well as of implied characteristics, during significant organisational change. In chapter 3 the insight into sensemaking theory in chapter 1 forms the basis of an interpretation of the finding of the storytelling examination in chapter 2. The experiences are considered from the perspective of the process people go through in order to make sense of complexity and interruptions in their ordered world. The interpretation attempts to identify the relationship, if any, between the effects of the use of springboard stories as applied during change and the properties of the sensemaking process that will take place in individuals attempting to deal with the change. The thesis concludes that storytelling, as proposed by Stephen Denning, facilitates sensemaking during times of organisational change. In doing so, storytelling enables the selection of new identities and the related implementation of actions suited to the changed environment. The impact of this conclusion on the use of traditional approaches to communicate change is considered, particularly as it relates to leadership attempts to guide people through change, and the change in leadership focus required to realise the benefits inherent in the use of storytelling.

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