Storytelling at the World Bank

by , under For teachers, Narrative writing

Many ESL teachers feel that argumentation skills are essential for academic and workplace success. Essay-writing remains at the heart of every college ESL course and Business English course. There are good reasons to question the over-emphasis on 5-paragraph essay writing and to reintroduce narrative writing into English Second Language courses.

In Storytelling in Organizations, Stephen Denning (2005) tells how he was tasked with the job of transforming the World Bank from a lender to a world leader in Knowledge Management. He met a lot of resistance to change and saw 5 years of work about to be undone by adverse opinion. Report after report, presentation after presentation led to fewer and fewer people understanding Knowledge Management and it was becoming fashionable to criticize it at the watercooler. Nobody, it seemed, was persuaded by his well-supported arguments, charts, graphs, and bullet points for compiling the World Bank’s considerable economic development knowledge and sharing it with stakeholders. In a last-ditch effort, Denning decided to try a new strategy at a lunchtime meeting for vice-presidents in 1999. He told the Madagascar Story.

Madagascar had wanted to implement a Good and Services Tax and needed to know whether to include medicine in the tax, so Madagascar asked the World Bank for its official position. That just set off a storm of controversy within the organization. The new Knowledge Management protocol that Denning was proposing called for an email to branch offices and universities in order to compile experiences with the question of GST on medicine around the globe. Amongst all the furor about the official position back at head office, an email was sent out to branch offices and experts around the world. Shortly after, the replies that came back indicated that in most cases excluding medicine from the GST worked best. Those stories were compiled and sent to Madagascar. Meanwhile, head-office was still deep in a debate about what to tell Madagascar was the World Bank’s official position, but Madagascar had the answer it needed. The stories of the GST experwritingiments in their individual contexts around the world allowed Madagascar to decide for itself what to do without having to be told the World Bank’s official opinion.

The Madagascar Story gave the vice-presidents at the lunchtime meeting the success story they needed to get behind Knowledge Management. They went back to their various departments, repeated the story, and the negative talk stopped. A single narrative had achieved what years of argument had failed to do.