Originally published on March 6, 2019

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This is the 42nd article in the Profiles in Knowledge series featuring thought leaders in knowledge management. Shawn Callahan is based in Melbourne, Australia, where his company, Anecdote, applies inspirational story methods to business. He has helped some of the world’s top companies to make their strategies really stick. His specialty is helping analytically-minded executives find and tell the stories that engage the emotions of, and ultimately inspire action from, their employees and customers.

Shawn started out as a geographer and archaeologist before working in the field of information technology with Oracle and IBM. His story-work began in 1999 while at IBM, when he started applying complexity theory to business issues. Story-based approaches to corporate practice were definitely on the fringe, but that was soon to change.

In 2004, when Shawn founded Anecdote, he had one clear aim in mind — to use story-work to bring out the humanity in organizations. He has taught business leaders how to be effective storytellers, and collected powerful organizational stories that prompt employees to work out for themselves what needs to change.

I have been quoting Shawn in my blog since 2006. He was away from home when I visited Australia in 2010, but we were able to meet in person at KMWorld 2016 in Washington, DC. Here I am with Arthur Shelley and Shawn at the 2016 SIKM Leaders Community dinner:

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Here are Arthur, Shawn, Patrick Lambe, and I at KMWorld 2016:

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  • Anecdote Pty Ltd — Founder and Director, since 2004
  • IBM — Knowledge & Strategy Consultant & Regional Lead for Cynefin Centre, 2000–2004
  • SMS Consulting Group — Consultant, 1996–2000
  • Sybase — Senior Consultant, 1994–1996
  • Oracle — Presales, 1988–1990
  • CRES, ANU — Research Assistant, 1987–1989
  • Australian National University
  1. BA (Honors) — Geography, Archaeology, 1987
  2. Basketball Team
  • Linkedin
  1. Personal
  2. Anecdote
  • Facebook
  1. Personal
  2. Anecdote
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  1. Personal
  2. Anecdote
  1. Articles
  2. Posts
  1. Part 1
  2. Part 2
  3. Part 3

Many large companies spend considerable resources on compiling case studies to document their successes; whole teams can be dedicated to this. The idea is a simple one. When it comes to the outcomes you’re selling, prospects will want to know whether you’ve actually achieved these before, and case studies can serve as evidence of this.

Sadly, however, most of the effort that goes into producing them is wasted. Sure, you can just slide a brochure across the table to your customer, one that spells out your past successes, but truthfully, what are the chances of the customer reading it? Wouldn’t it be better if you could just tell the story of your success and then talk about it with your prospect?

You might think that you can do this with case studies, but they are notoriously difficult to weave into a conversation because the format is designed to be shared as a written document. Rather, you need to transform your case studies into success stories. To do this, you need to overcome two challenges.

  • Perspective — A case study is often told from the perspective of a company, which is far less interesting and insightful than a story told from an individual’s perspective. Humans are rarely fascinated by what Company X did for Company Y. But we can be captivated by what a person in Company X did to help solve a problem faced by a person in Company Y, especially if we can identify with the people involved.
  • Structure — The second challenge involves how case studies are typically structured. They often follow this format: What was the problem the company faced? What was the solution we provided? And finally, what was the outcome we delivered? Now that all sounds logical and well reasoned, but it’s clearly not a narrative structure — it’s not a story. To translate a case study into a success story, we’d need to extract the essential information and rearrange it into a series of events that illustrate cause and effect, and which ideally offer a surprise or other emotional connection so that we care about what’s being said. The typical case study also has a lot of information than you can easily talk about, so you’d need to decide which parts of the story your customer really needs to know.
  • How to Craft Effective Success Stories
  • Motivated by Success
  1. Design/methodology/approach — Data were collected through the use of web-based questionnaires to the full list membership and a second questionnaire to members of the list’s core management team. Telephone interviews were conducted with a sample drawn from the frequent contributors to the list. A basic assumption of the research was that the discussion list ActKM is a community of practice.
  2. Findings — The results indicated that ActKM is indeed a community of practice and that off-list activity is considered a valuable extension of community life. Other findings are that ActKM is a significant tool that facilitates learning for members and there is strong agreement about the type of postings that are preferred.
  3. Research limitations/implications — The paper provides useful insights into the value of list membership for individuals. However, while the results suggest that there has been an impact on the practice of KM more generally, this research is not able to identify the degree to which this has occurred.
  4. Originality/value — Online discussion lists proliferate. This paper provides useful guidance for list managers and for those wanting to support and nurture online communities of practice.
  • Cultivating a Public Sector Knowledge Management Community of PracticeChapter — ActKM is a Community of Practice for people interested in public sector Knowledge Management. Having begun in 1998, the community now numbers more than 550 members and is nurtured and maintained predominantly, but not exclusively, online. Utilizing the Cynefin sense-making framework of Dave Snowden, this chapter analyzes the ActKM community and provides a practical account of its history, purpose, guiding principles, goals, characteristics and dynamics. The chapter concludes with a summary of the lessons learnt from the ActKM experience that others might find useful in cultivating a vibrant Community of Practice of this type.
  • Community of Practice Variety from a Complexity Perspective with Patricia Milne — White Paper — A new framework for understanding communities of practice is required to unite the disjointed approaches currently employed. This paper proposes an approach based on complexity theory, and applies a framework developed by Axelrod and Cohen. A set of mechanisms is explored to understand how a designer might influence variety (of strategies and types) in a community of practice. Four mechanisms are addressed. An understanding of these mechanisms enables a designer to increase or decrease variety within a community of practice.
  1. The process of copying strategies and types
  2. Copying with error (mutation)
  3. Recombination of ideas
  4. The role of the physical environment.
  1. Archive
  2. Data Storytelling
  1. Shawn’s KM Book List
  2. Shawn’s test for community
  3. Simple Gauge for Communities of Practice: I am a (blank) — I always enjoy reading the blog of the Anecdote consulting organization in Australia. They are great people and frequently post insightful observations on communities of practice and knowledge management. Recently Shawn Callahan posted about a little test he uses to determine whether a community has a chance to succeed in building an identify and affinity among members. Since community has to start with a sense of belonging in order to succeed, I think this is a useful tool for any KM practitioner to have in their back pocket. Shawn wrote, “When someone says, ‘I would like to start a community of practice.’ I ask, ‘Can you describe the potential members by completing the following sentence? I am a …’ If they can fill in the blank in a way that people can passionately identify with the descriptor then there is a chance a community might emerge.” In his example, “I am a project manager” had a good chance to succeed, while “I am a technical” did not.

Shawn’s bio

Before starting Anecdote I was the knowledge-management practice leader for IBM Australia and regional leader of IBM’s Cynefin Centre. I’ve been working as a consultant and researcher for more than 15 years now, and have undertaken a wide variety of projects — including community-of-practice development, knowledge-mapping, knowledge strategy, and using narrative techniques to tackle seemingly intractable issues (such as trust, cash economy, and workplace safety).

In 1999 I co-founded the ACT Knowledge Management Forum (known as ActKM), an international community of practice for knowledge management in the public sector, and helped to develop the group from eight members to more than a thousand. I now have a new community project underway, a small group interested in applying complexity theory to management practices.

As a teenager, I once played Wally Masur (once Australia’s Davis Cup coach) in a tennis match and was thoroughly trounced, winning only two points in eight games. This spelled the end of my tennis career, but other sports, such as basketball and golf, have provided many years of pleasure.

Q&A with Shawn Callahan:

Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?

A: In 1999 I joined IBM in Australia to lead the knowledge management practice and the first thing I wanted to organize for my clients was an interesting seminar on the current state of knowledge management. I figured there must be a KM thought leader in IBM and in my search I found Dave Snowden. We was renowned for a unique and provocative perspective on knowledge management and was an entertaining speaker. But he was based in the UK so I emailed him and asked whether he had a video of any of his KM talks I could show my clients. Dave said he could do much better. He was coming to Australia and would be happy to give a one-day workshop. I organised the event at Old Parliament House in Canberra, and I was mesmerized by Dave’s ideas on complexity, business narrative and the way he told stories that captured the imagination of everyone in the audience. That’s when I said to myself, “I’m going to do that.” Eventually Dave and I worked together in IBM’s Cynefin Centre for Organisational Complexity where we had fours years together with a handful of other inspirational people applying our ideas with IBM’s clients around the world. It was a terrific experience.

Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?

A: Businesses have made tremendous progress in the past by dealing with their organisation as if it were a machine. It was all about making the parts more efficient, oiling the cogs, turbo charging the processes and pulling the right levers. But things are getting more complex and the old ways of dealing with problems seem to be losing traction. People, particularly professionals (and there many more professionals in the workforce these days) hate to be told what to do. Consequently leaders are looking for new ways to understand what’s really happening in their organisation, they looking for better ways to engage and better ways motivate people. Stories are integral to the new ways of working in complex environments. They are effective as a way to work out what’s happening. In our work we call this story listening. It’s a kind of anthropological application of narrative. Then there is the skill of telling stories, which seems to have a tremendous effect in motivating people to take action. Business people are recognizing the utility of stories.

Q: What’s your favorite story about a transformation that came about through a story or storytelling act?

A: Our local council is redeveloping one of its shopping precincts. The plan is to partner with a property developer and share the risk. Our region has a rich Italian and Turkish heritage so we are blessed with many superb ethnic restaurants. This multicultural heritage defines our region.

The two companies competing to be the council’s partner are the renowned corporate property developer giant Lend Lease and the successful, Melbourne-based company Grocon. Each company made presentations to the council and during the Grocon’s presentation a councillor asked the Grocon Managing Director, Daniel Grollo, “so why did your company bid for this project?” Daniel Grollo, a man in his thirties, an impressive executive said, “I’m probably not the best person to answer your question but my architect, Lorenzo, can tell you what happened.” Lorenzo stepped forward and said, “I noticed the ad in the paper so I rang up Daniel and said, hey, we’re wog boys, we spent our youth in this area, we should do this project.” And with that tiny anecdote there was a noticeable change in how the Grocon bid was viewed. They were doing the project for the right reasons. Grocon won the contest.

Q: You started Anecdote just a few years ago — in August 2004. What has been the biggest surprise since you’ve been running Anecdote? At what point did you feel the company was a success?

A: Probably my biggest surprise is the fact that we have convinced some of the largest corporations in Australia and the world to adopt narrative approaches to things like change management, leadership development, collaboration and learning. When we started we would often get cock-eyed grimaces when we mentioned stories but today people seek us out for our business narrative experience. It doesn’t hurt that popular management books like A Whole New Mind, Made to Stick, Influencer, and a myriad of others feature stories and storytelling as key capabilities for the future.

I would say we turned a corner and really felt we could make Anecdote a successful business when we started getting people finding us on the web and wanting to engage our services. We still have a long way to go because there are so many things we would like to do including running more of our workshops in the US and UK and helping more people understand that narrative work is much more that helping people tell better stories.

Q: You created Worldwide Story Work, a Ning social network. What was your motivation in creating it? Has it lived up to your expectations, and if not, what has to occur to enable the network to align with your vision?

A: In 1998 Kate Muir and I started the A.C.T. Knowledge Management Forum. We started with a handful of members in Canberra and met monthly to learn about knowledge management. We also linked everyone together on an email list. Today ActKM (as it is now known) has over 1,000 members and is arguably the most active and influential online knowledge management community in the world. We learned a lot about online communities with ActKM so Madelyn Blair (the co-coordinator of WWSW) and I thought we could take these learnings and our other community building experiences and build something useful for story practitioners.

I expect WWSW to develop slowly and gradually find its feet, so it’s living up to my expectations. It will be interesting to see how the culture of the community emerges. I’m keen for it to be a friendly place where everyone feels they can ask questions and they will get answers.

1. From Proven Practices for Promoting a KM Program, Chapter 5: Communicate

In Putting Stories to Work: Mastering Business Storytelling, Chapter 6, Shawn Callahan wrote: “As Dan Pink points out in To Sell Is Human, we are all selling something, whether it’s a product, a service, an idea, even when cajoling your kids to study. And whenever we’re selling, we need success stories in our back pocket which we can pull out whenever they are needed. Knowing that others have successfully done what they are setting out to do is a powerful motivator.”

2. Anecdote: Knowledge strategy — the core objectives

Every knowledge strategy has the same objectives, which are:

  • improve knowledge sharing
  • enhance innovation
  • reduce impact of people leaving (knowledge retention)
  • build skills and know-how
  • improve everyone’s ability to find relevant knowledge when they need it
  • improve how we learn from experience

3. Knowledge management lessons

  • All KM is change management — View every knowledge management initiative as a change initiative, which means helping the leadership group to imagine what it will be like when it’s done and after imagining it, they want it. It also means getting the employees engaged in working out how it’s going to work and then getting people to volunteer to work on it. It will also involve a recognition that most KM initiatives are affected by culture (actually, what isn’t) and culture is never completed, done, ticked off the list of things to do. Consequently, a continuous improvement approach is needed.
  • Link to what matters — Make sure that the most powerful people in the organization understand and believe the answer to, “so what?” Always link the KM initiative to what people care about. Mostly that’s the business strategy but there have been times when I’ve worked with organizations without a clear business strategy, so a linkage there wasn’t going to help. Find out what matters and if the KM initiatives doesn’t make a difference, dump it rather than try and make it fit. A poor fitting KM initiative will eventually unravel anyway so it’s better to dump it early than to forced to dump it when heaps of resources have been spent and it’s barely limping along.
  • Collect stories early and often — It’s often hard to quantify the value of KM initiatives. So whenever you hear a real live experience, no matter how small, take a note of what happened and tell others. We’re helping an engineering firm start a community of practice for its draftspeople. At the first teleconference a woman in Newcastle recounted how she was creating a library of screws for a particular type of aircraft. A fellow in Adelaide piped up saying they already have a library of screws and it also includes auto-placement. You could hear the excitement in the woman’s voice on hearing this work had already been done, “and it even has auto-placement.” The couple joined forces and updated the library and made it available to the whole community. This is a small story, but one senior leadership heard from the very beginning of the community’s development and they could retell to other leaders in the company while finishing their anecdote with, “and this is just one thing the community is doing.” While the business benefits must be articulated, the stories gave the community time to establish themselves.

4. Anecdote’s take on how to talk about Knowledge Management with Mark Schenk and Andrew Rixon lists these characteristics of knowledge:

  • You cannot command people’s knowledge; you need to encourage them to share it.
  • We always know more than we can tell, and we can always tell more that we can write.
  • We only know what we know when we need to know it.
  • If knowledge is to be converted to information and vice versa, people must do virtually all the work.
  • Knowledge is sticky; it does not flow easily across organization boundaries.
  • Trust is an essential prerequisite for effective knowledge sharing in organizations.
  • When solving problems, our natural tendency is to ask questions.
  • Efficiency encourages codification; effectiveness encourages lower levels of codification and greater flexibility.
  • Sharing is a natural act.

5. Here are the character traits I think a community coordinator should have:

  • well respected
  • knowledgeable about the community’s domain (but not an expert)
  • well connected to a range of community members
  • keen to develop the community’s practice
  • good communicators
  • personally interested in community leadership
  • good workshop and meeting facilitator
  • likable

The other critical feature is that the coordinator should be approved/accepted/chosen by the community leadership.

6. Don’t forget Max Boisot

7. Three-dozen knowledge sharing barriers

8. Crafting a Knowledge Strategy

9. Crafting a knowledge strategy that works with Mark Schenk and Chandni Kapur

10. Helping Big Data Scientists be Storytellers

11. The role of stories in data storytelling

12. Posts about Change Management

13. What is business narrative? — Business narrative is more about listening rather than telling. Storytelling, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with crafting persuasive stories to affect change in an organization. Both are important and complementary uses of narrative in organizations.

14. Story-driven change

Change is energized by:

To succeed you need all three.

15. Anecdote Circles — An anecdote circle resembles a focus group except it’s designed to elicit people’s stories — their real-life experiences — rather than opinions. The role of the anecdote facilitator is to ask very few, open questions which helps the participants recount real events. The facilitator spends most of their time listening and whenever someone offers an opinion they ask for an example.

16. Building a Collaborative Workplace

17. Business narrative experiences at Anecdote

18. Expertise Locators

19. Social search — getting your community and colleagues to help improve findability

20. Leaders blogging

21. Posts on Social Network Analysis

22. The network is more powerful than a best practice

23. Lessons learned when stories are told

24. Measuring knowledge work — when measures become targets

25. Stories are a form of taskonomy

26. Podcasting is taking off but when will it make it into organisations?

27. Posts about video


  1. The role of stories in data storytelling
  2. Character Trumps Credentials: 170 Questions that Help Leaders Find and Tell Great Stories
  3. Putting Stories to Work: Contents, Introduction, Chapter 1, Chapter 2

1. 2009 — One on one debate: Social computing has to all intents and purposes reduced CoP to file repositories. Moderated by Patrick Lambe, President, iKMS; and Co-founder, Straits Knowledge — Debaters:

  • Dave Snowden, Founder and Chief Scientific Officer, Cognitive Edge Pte Ltd
  • Shawn Callahan, Founding Director, Anecdote

2. 2012Brochure

  • Making your knowledge strategy stick — Considerable effort can go into developing your KM strategy. But does anyone know what it is? This presentation will describe how you can use storytelling to engage your stakeholders in the strategy and ensure everyone who needs to know really understands it. A knowledge strategy is worthless unless it can be recounted when it counts, that is, when decisions are being made.
  • Interactive debate: Making tacit knowledge explicit with collaborative technologies? The debaters will each put forward their arguments on capturing implicit knowledge in a public forum debate format, before going in a crossfire. Facilitated by Jacqui Thorburn, Manager, Knowledge Systems, TAFE NSW — Sydney Institute (Australia) — Debaters:

— We should and we can!

  1. Aaron Everingham, Industry Solution Manager, Objective Corporation;
  2. James Dellow, Social Business Design Consultant, Headshift | Dachis Group

— We shouldn’t and we can’t!

  1. Shawn Callahan, Founding Director, Anecdote;
  2. Dr. Vincent Ribiere, Managing Director and Co-Founder, Institute for Knowledge and Innovation Southeast Asia — Thailand Office, Associate Professor, Director of the KIM Ph.D. Program, Bangkok University (Thailand)

3. 2016 — Conveying Big Data Insights with Stories

Big data holds out a promise of tantalizing insights that will help leaders grab new opportunities. Regardless of how good the analysis might be there’s still is point where the insight is shared with a decision maker so they can take action. Transferring the insight can be done so they just get it or they can easily bury the lead. This session describes how story techniques can ensure the message is received loud and clear.

  • An insight is when we unexpectedly come to a better story. How to find this story in the analysis
  • How to share this better story with a decision maker so they can act
  • Sometimes the insight is up against the prevailing and powerful story of the day. How to dislodge the existing story with the new story

Delegates will learn how to convey insights derived from analysis and share them with decision makers so they can take action, all using story base techniques.

4. 2018 — The Evolution of Business Storytelling — past, present, future Storytelling is a hot topic in business. Everyone wants to tell a story about their business, their product, their brand. But it wasn’t always this way. Shawn will trace the history of business storytelling and highlight some of the forces at play that will likely impact what the field will look like in the future.

  • Why have businesses become enamored with storytelling?
  • Where have the techniques come from and how has this shaped the varieties of business storytelling available today?
  • What are the forces that are likely to share business storytelling in the future?

Delegates will get a good understanding of the myriad flavors of business storytelling, learn where they’ve come from and when they might apply them now and in the future.




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Storytelling is a craft learnt through imitation and practice. Just like good writers are good readers, good storytellers are great story-listeners. After all, the expert was a beginner once.

Written by

Knowledge Management Author and Speaker, Founder of SIKM Leaders Community, Community Evangelist, Knowledge Manager https://sites.google.com/site/stangarfield/

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