Storytelling at Xerox

by , under Narrative writing

Quite a few ESL teachers believe that reporting and argumentation skills are paramount for workplace success. Essay-writing remains at the center of nearly every college English as a Second Language 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, John Seely Brown (2005) claims that storytelling is an essential communication tool for business. In his view, narratives help employees unlearn bad ideas and communicate new knowledge and new methods more efficiently than standard training approaches. Brown had been asked by senior executives at Xerox to help solve a problem with its training program. At the time, Xerox was spending large amounts of money on training, but customers consistently complained that Xerox’s repair technicians took too long and cost too much.

While researching the problem, Brown kept hearing about a photocopier repairman who had gained the reputation of being the fastest in the business, so he went out to meet him. Brown flew to California and drove out to meet the repairman in the field where he was working on an intermittent copying error. Brown was dressed in a business suit and was starting to feel uncomfortably hot when he arrived on site. Wearing just a t-shirt and shorts, the repairman met Brown at the door, shook his hand, smirked, and explained that the official repair manual says that to fix an intermittent copying error, you load a machine with 5000 sheets of paper and hit “copy” to replicate the error.

While the machine is running, he explained, there is nothing to do except drink coffee. His method was different. It saved 5000 sheets of paper and an hour of repair time. Arriving at a repair job, the repairman would always go immediately to the wastepaper basket to look for discarded copies with copying errors. “Learn to read the world and you will see how things really work,” was his advice. What he meant was that Xerox had been training technicians to solve decontextualized problems. If you ignore local context, you are as foolish as a business executive who wears a three-piece suit to a repair job on a hot summer’s day in California.

When Brown returned to head office, he told the story to the people in his office. Before they could revise and reprint the repair manual, repairmen across the country were repeating the story and putting the new method into practice. By telling the story, Xerox started saving its customers reams of paper and stacks of money. Stories, Brown discovered, could more efficiently get people to unlearn bad practices and communicate better practices than new repair manuals.