Originally published on July 4, 2018

This is the 25th article in the Profiles in Knowledge series featuring thought leaders in knowledge management. Steve Denning is a consultant, speaker, and author on leadership, storytelling, and management. He was the Knowledge Management Program Director at the World Bank.

I first met Steve when I attended his Ark Group one-day workshop in Chicago on September 29, 2005. His topic was Narrative Techniques for Leaders: Mastering transformational leadership through storytelling, and I was greatly influenced by Steve and his ideas. We have been friends ever since.


Steve was born in Sydney, Australia. He studied law and psychology at Sydney University. After doing a post-graduate law degree at Oxford University, he joined the World Bank where he worked for several decades in various management capacities, including Director of the Southern Africa Department from 1990 to 1994, and Director of the Africa Region from 1994 to 1996. From 1996 to 2000, Steve was the Program Director, Knowledge Management at the World Bank where he spearheaded the organizational knowledge sharing program.

He has been a consultant, speaker, and author since 2000. Since 2011, he has been writing a leadership column for Forbes.com and has published more than 600 articles on the Creative Economy.

Steve is a member of the Advisory Board of the Drucker Forum, headquartered in Vienna, Austria. The annual Drucker Forum, held in November each year, has become the leading global conference on general management issues. Each year, Steve has chaired a panel at the Forum.

From 2014 to 2016, Steve was a member of the board of directors of Scrum Alliance, a rapidly growing association of some 460,000 members with a mission of transforming the world of work. On behalf of Scrum Alliance, he hosts a monthly series of webinars with world-renowned management thought leaders.

In 2015, Steve led the Learning Consortium for the Creative Economy in which a group of firms, including Microsoft and Ericsson, which shared insights on the emerging Creative Economy.

In 2016, the SD Learning Consortium became a non-profit corporation registered in the state of Virginia. More details about it are available here.

In November 2016, in Vienna Austria, Steve chaired the panel of organizations presenting the report of the Learning Consortium for the Creative Economy to the Drucker Forum. The 2016 report of the SD Learning Consortium is available here.


  1. About
  2. LinkedIn
  3. Twitter
  4. Wikipedia

Steve’s Site

  1. What is knowledge?
  2. What is knowledge-management?
  3. Seven basics of KM
  4. Strategy of knowledge management
  5. Organizing for knowledge management
  6. Budget of knowledge management
  7. Incentives for knowledge management
  8. Communities of practice
  9. Technology of knowledge management
  10. Measurement of knowledge management
  11. Second generation issues
  12. Digital divide or opportunity
  13. Imperative to share knowledge
  14. Connecting vs collecting
  15. Democratization of knowledge
  16. Knowledge fairs: the horizontal ritual
  17. KM and new knowledge
  18. KM and eBusiness
  19. Evaluating IT tools for KM
  20. KM job description
  21. What is intellectual capital?
  22. KM and sharing knowledge
  23. Laws of knowledge management
  24. Knowledge sharing is the key to survival
  25. Communities: the heart and soul of KM
  26. Communities need physical interaction
  27. Passion is the driver of knowledge management
  28. KM needs inside-out and outside-in
  29. Storytelling ignites knowledge sharing
  30. Corollaries
  1. What is a story?
  2. Definitions of story and narrative
  3. Different types of story
  4. The importance of oral storytelling
  5. Why stories need single protagonists
  6. How to tell a springboard story
  7. What is a springboard story?
  8. Craft, frame and perform a springboard story
  9. Creating High-Performance-Teams
  10. The Secret Language of Leadership
  11. Why giving reasons to a skeptical audience doesn’t work
  12. The new triad of leadership communication
  13. The enabling conditions of leadership communication
  14. Beyond storytelling: narrative intelligence
  15. From “sales pitch” to “trusted partnership”
  16. How to use PowerPoint
  17. Basic principles of PowerPoint hygiene
  18. World Bank presentation of April 26, 1996
  19. Five different types of leaders
  20. Radical Management
  21. Where to use storytelling: Business uses of storytelling
  22. Storytelling to ignite organizational change
  23. Storytelling for communications: the knowing-doing gap
  24. Storytelling to capture tacit knowledge
  25. Storytelling to embody and transfer knowledge
  26. Using stories for innovation
  27. Storytelling to build community
  28. Storytelling to enhance technology
  29. Storytelling for individual growth
  • How storytelling communicates complex ideas
  1. Narrative vs abstract thinking: Jerome Bruner
  2. Communications as media: the conventional view of Roman Jakobsen
  3. Communications the interactive view: Walter Ong
  4. Communications as social flow: David Bohm
  5. Stories and archetypes: Carl Jung
  6. Engineering vs ecological viewpoints: John Seely Brown
  7. Storytelling and persuasion: Selling vs leading
  8. Storytelling and genuine persuasion
  9. Storytelling and seduction: Jean Baudrillard
  10. Storytelling and openness: de Bono
  11. Narrative intelligence and innovation: Clayton Christensen et al.
  12. Why isn’t storytelling taken seriously?
  13. Why does science despise storytelling?
  14. Storytelling and zen: Eastern concepts of knowledge
  15. Storytelling and post-modernism: Jean-François Lyotard
  16. Storytelling in Civic and Political Leadership
  • Springboard stories in literature: How great writers used them
  1. Plato’s Symposium
  2. Parables of Jesus Christ
  3. Boccaccio’s Decameron
  4. Scheherazade and the 1001 Nights
  5. Shakespeare: Henry V: The speech of St. Crispian’s Day
  6. Shakespeare: Othello’s seduction of Desdemona
  7. Quotations on storytelling


  1. The amount of money that could be spent on accumulating knowledge is infinite.
  2. Knowledge has no value per se.
  3. Spending on knowledge has negative value if organization doesn’t use it.
  4. Institutional knowledge may serve as blinders to effective action.
  5. The most valuable knowledge increasingly lies outside the organization.
  6. Knowledge can require deep expertise to access it.
  7. The deep expertise needed to access knowledge can be lost.
  8. The value of knowledge lies in improved outcomes for external customers or stakeholders.
  9. What constitutes an improved outcome depends on the organization’s strategy.
  10. Outcomes need to be measured against the organizational strategy.

Steve as Quoted by Me

Q: The following key elements of a KM program are attributed to you from your work at the World Bank in Tom Stewart’s book, The Wealth of Knowledge: Intellectual Capital and the Twenty-first Century Organization, chapter 5, pages 85–87:

  1. communities of practice
  2. place (online presence for the communities)
  3. help desk
  4. Yellow Pages (who-knows-what directory)
  5. primer (FAQ)
  6. knowledge artifacts (records of previous projects, emphasizing best practices and lessons learned)
  7. bulletin board
  8. doorway (a provision for outside access)

Do you still agree with this list, or are there any changes you would make to it?

A: (from Steve Denning)

Gosh! I feel as though I’ve been pulled over by the traffic police and asked whether I was speeding in 1998! Guilty as charged!

In one sense, yes, that is a list that made sense, given what we were thinking about in terms of KM, way back then.

What’s more apparent now, however, is that all those elements are about enhancing the supply of knowledge, when it’s now more obvious that enhancing the demand for knowledge is a much more serious problem than we realized at the time, and perhaps even more serious than the supply issue anyway. Narrative is a key tool for enhancing demand for knowledge.

It’s also clearer now that transformational innovation, which is key to organizational survival, is as much dependent on imagination as it is on knowledge, which tends to be “yesterday’s news”.

It also seems to me that risk management is an important way of getting a focus on the both negative knowledge, which is difficult to discuss, and negative risks, about which we know little, but which may have a determining role in our futures. Risk management may also be able to contribute to the demand problem of KM.

It’s also more apparent that there won’t be many benefits if the values of the organization are not conducive to the sharing of knowledge.

So those would be the big additions that I would make to the list — demand, imagination, risk management, values — in addition to more recent high tech gadgets, like blogs, RSS feeds, wikis and the rest.

Q: Why aren’t knowledge-based organizations a reality?

A: (from Steve Denning)

I think that the main reason is the prevalence of seventeen myths surrounding knowledge and knowledge management. These myths not only prevent knowledge-based organizations from becoming the reality that was promised, but they also tend to get in the way of effective discussion of the issues. (I use “myth” here in the sense of “a fiction or half-truth, especially one that forms part of an ideology.”) From my paper on Seventeen Myths of Knowledge Management:

A. The nature of knowledge

2. “Knowledge is always a plus”

3. “Knowledge always helps innovation”

4. “Knowledge is sticky”

5. “The concept of knowledge is infinitely extendable”

B. The nature of knowledge sharing

5. “Knowledge can be transferred”

6. “Knowledge-sharing is always a good thing”

7. “Knowledge is more important than values”

8. “People always want to have better knowledge”

9. “The task of KM is to enhance the supply of knowledge”

10. “There are structural solutions to the lack of demand for knowledge”

11. “KM is the same for all organizations”

C. The impact of knowledge sharing

12. “Knowledge is the only sustainable competitive advantage”

13. “Knowledge management will transform the business landscape”

14. “KM succeeded and no one knows it”

15. “It was the IT vendors who killed KM”

16. “The right question to ask is: how do you make knowledge-based organizations?”

17. “Knowledge is the raison d’être for organizations and explains competitive advantage”

The Way Forward

It is not that the propositions cited above are totally wrong. Most are partly correct. But they are also partly incorrect. And they are widely believed and pervasive in the literature. So the way forward in KM is to be more nuanced, more accurate, more precise in what we say and how we talk about knowledge and knowledge sharing, along with perhaps more than a soupçon of modesty in what we claim and predict.

Do I still agree with it? Well…. I agree that that’s what I thought at the time.

Since then, I have discovered Agile management, and so this has broadened and deepened my understanding of KM quite a bit. This includes:

  • KM is a horizontal dynamic. Most big firms have a vertical dynamic. This is a fundamental conflict that can only be resolved by the firm adopting a horizontal dynamic as a whole.
  • This in turn means that the firm needs to dedicate itself to the delivering value to the customer — a horizontal dynamic.
  • Teams need to have a clear line of sight to their ultimate customer/end user so that they can decide how to solve problems and what knowledge is needed.
  • Teams need to be cross-functional so that knowledge sharing takes place at the team level. Knowledge sharing is baked into the org design.
  • Collaboration between teams is a huge issue, that requires the whole firm operate a network, or team of teams, not a top-down bureaucracy.
  • Knowledge sharing is mainly about connections, not collections.
  • The exception to that is open source software, which functions as a quintessential knowledge collection. The reason why it is works well is that the knowledge embedded in software is an algorithm that is independent of context. Most knowledge in a firm is not in the form of an algorithm: it is more like rules of thumb, heuristics or hypotheses, which are very context-dependent. They can’t be deployed, willy-nilly. Attempts to do so are counter-productive. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
  • My list of things was about processes. Successful KM is really about having a different mindset, not processes. If you don’t have the right mindset, the processes won’t help you.

And so on.

The idea of a springboard story was first explained in the book, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations. The following description comes from Steve.

A springboard story is a story that enables a leap in understanding by the audience so as to grasp how an organization or community or complex system may change. It has an impact not through transferring large amounts of information, but through catalyzing understanding. It enables listeners to visualize from a story in one context what is involved in a large-scale transformation in an analogous context.

Springboard stories are told from the perspective of a single protagonist who was in a predicament that is prototypical of the organization’s business. The predicament of the explicit story is familiar to the particular audience, and it is the very predicament that the change proposal is meant to solve. The stories have a degree of strangeness or incongruity for the listeners, so that it captures their attention and stimulates their imaginations.

The origin of my interest in organizational storytelling was simple: nothing else worked. As a manager in the World Bank in 1996, I had been trying to communicate the idea of knowledge management and to get people to understand and to implement it. At that time in that organization, knowledge management was a strange and generally incomprehensible idea. I used the traditional methods of communicating with no success. I gave people reasons why the idea was important but they didn’t listen. I showed them charts and they just looked dazed. In my desperation, I was willing to try anything and eventually I stumbled on the power of a story, such as the following:

In June 1995, a health worker in a tiny town in Zambia logged on to the website for the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta Georgia and got the answer to a question on how to treat malaria.

This was June 1995, not June 2001. This was not the capital of Zambia but a tiny place six hundred kilometers away. This was not rich country: this was Zambia, one of the poorest countries in the world. But the most important part of this picture for us in the World Bank is this: the World Bank isn’t in the picture. The World Bank doesn’t have its know-how accessible to all the millions of people who made decisions about poverty. But just imagine if it had. Think what an organization it could become.

In 1996 in the World Bank, this story had helped galvanize staff and managers to imagine a different kind of future for the organization and to set about implementing it. Once knowledge management became an official corporate strategy later that year, I continued to use similar stories to reinforce and continue the change. The efforts were successful: by 2000, the World Bank was benchmarked as a world leader in knowledge management.

There are good reasons why business communications are persistently analytic. Analysis is the key to good theory, precise thinking, logical proof, sound argument, and empirical discovery. Analysis cuts through the fog of myth, gossip and speculation to get to the hard facts. Its strength is its objectivity, its impersonality, its very heartlessness: it goes wherever the observations and premises and conclusions take it. Analysis isn’t distorted by the feelings or the hopes or the fears of the analysts: analysis gets us relentlessly to the bottom line.

The very strength of analysis — its heartlessness — can be a drawback when it comes to communicating with human beings. Analysis might excite the mind, but its heartlessness is hardly the route to the heart. Yet it is the heart that we need to reach to get people enthusiastically into action. Endless mind-numbing cascades of numbers can result in dazed audiences and PowerPoint burnout. At a time when corporate survival often entails disruptive change, leadership is about moving and inspiring people, often to do things that they are not by habit or by predisposition inclined to do, Just giving people a reason simply does not work.

Good business cases are developed through the use of numbers, but they are typically approved on the basis of stories. A story can translate dry, abstract numbers into compelling pictures of how the deep yearnings of decision influencers can come true.

A: Steve Denning has defined Eight Narrative Patterns:

  1. Motivate others to action — Using narrative to ignite action & implement new ideas: The challenge of igniting action and implementing new ideas is pervasive in organizations today. The main elements of the kind of story that can accomplish this — a springboard story — include the story’s foundation in a sound change idea, its truth, its minimalist style, and its positive tone.
  2. Build trust in you — Using narrative to communicate who you are: Communicating who you are and so building trust in you as an authentic person is vital for today’s leader. The type of story that can accomplish this is typically a story that focuses on a turning point in your life. It has a positive tone and is told with context.
  3. Build trust in your company — Using narrative to build your brand: Just as a story can communicate who you are, a story can communicate who your company is. A strong brand is a relationship supported by a narrative. It’s a promise you have to keep, that begins by making sure that the managers and staff of the organization know and live the brand narrative. The products and services that are being offered are often the most effective vehicle to communicate the brand narrative to external stakeholders.
  4. Transmit your values — Using narrative to instill organizational values: The nature of values includes the differences between robber baron, hardball, instrumental and ethical values, between personal and corporate values and between espoused and operational values. Values are established by actions and can be transmitted by narratives like parables that are not necessarily true and are typically told in a minimalist fashion.
  5. Get others working together — Using narrative to foster collaboration to get things done: The different patterns of working together include work groups, teams, communities and networks. Whereas conventional management techniques have difficulty in generating high-performing teams and communities, narrative techniques are well suited to the challenge.
  6. Share knowledge — Using narrative to transmit knowledge & understanding: Knowledge-sharing stories tend to be about problems and have a different pattern from the traditional well- told story. They are told with context, and have something traditional stories lack, i.e., an explanation. Establishing the appropriate setting for telling the story is often a central aspect of eliciting knowledge-sharing stories.
  7. Tame the grapevine — Using narrative to neutralize gossip and rumor: Stories form the basis of corporate culture, which comprises a form of know-how. Although conventional management techniques are generally impotent to deal with the rumor mill, narrative techniques can subvert neutralize untrue rumors by satirizing them out of existence.
  8. Create and share your vision — Using narrative to lead people into the future: Future stories are important to organizations, although they can be difficult to tell in a compelling fashion since the future is inherently uncertain. The alternatives available to a leader in crafting the future story include telling the story in an evocative fashion and using a shortcut to the future. Others include simulations, informal stories, plans, business models, strategies, scenarios and visions.

Steve Denning has discussed different aspects of teams and communities. Specifically, how narrative techniques can help in dealing with them in ways that command-and-control approaches will never be able to accomplish.

In The Seven Basic Principles of Radical Management, Steve Denning’s seventh principle is:

Managers communicating interactively through stories, questions and conversations: An underlying requirement of all of these principles is interactive communication. Unless managers and workers are communicating interactively, using authentic narratives, open-ended questions and deep listening, rather than treating people as things to be manipulated, none of the above works.

In 13 Myths of Knowledge Management, Steve Denning provides an example of culture and values in action: “Mindtree Consulting launched a persistent multi-year effort to establish five values as the dominant values of the organization:

  1. Caring — requires empathy, trust; needed to enable sharing and individual push of knowledge
  2. Learning — required for individual pull of knowledge
  3. Achieving — high performance requires resourcefulness and heavy reliance on knowledge
  4. Sharing — active cooperation; requires fair process, openness, transparency.
  5. Social Responsibility — an outward extension of all the above values

The focus on values greatly facilitated the implementation of knowledge management in the firm.”

Knowledge artifacts are one of the key elements of a KM program. These include records of previous projects, emphasizing proven practices and lessons learned.

Storytelling: using narrative to ignite action, implement new ideas, communicate who you are, build your brand, instill organizational values, foster collaboration to get things done, share knowledge, neutralize gossip and rumor, and lead people into the future

The biggest challenge in innovation is not in generating more ideas, it’s about how you take the really good ideas and make them actually happen. A company’s sustainability requires a commitment to transformation via disruptive growth — a place where most companies do not excel. The paradox lies within the heart of the organization itself. Innovation is less about understanding the problem than getting people to act differently, often contrary to well-established assumptions and practices. To solve this paradox, a different kind of leadership is needed — one that goes beyond the familiar command and control. By crafting a logical narrative and testing a potential new business model against it, leaders learn to adapt the innovation to the evolving realities of the marketplace.

  1. Focusing the entire organization on delighting clients
  2. Working in self-organizing teams
  3. Operating in client-driven iterations
  4. Delivering value to clients with each iteration
  5. Fostering radical transparency
  6. Nurturing continuous self-improvement
  7. Communicating interactively

As organizations start on their knowledge journey, they inevitably find great difficulties in communicating complicated ideas through abstract forms of communication. This is even more true where this knowledge journey also implies large-scale changes in behavior and understanding of the mission of the organization. Telling stories that build on real knowledge sharing situations, enables individuals to gather in some of the understanding of the storyteller as well as recast the story into their own contextual work environment; hence adding their own understanding to the process. Organizations are finding that the marriage of narrative and abstract communications provides a more powerful tool for sharing knowledge than merely abstract communications.

A narrative or story in its broadest sense is anything told or recounted; more narrowly, and more usually, something told or recounted in the form of a causally-linked set of events; account; tale,: the telling of a happening or connected series of happenings, whether true or fictitious.

The quality of knowledge does not depend on whether it is old or new but rather whether it is relevant, whether it still works. Whether it is old or new hardly matters. The question is: does it work? The dynamic of academia is different. Here the new is celebrated, whether it is useful or not. The old is looked down on, not because it isn’t useful, but because the raison d’etre of academia is to create the new, not the useful. Innovation in industry will often draw on lessons from the past, particularly those that have been forgotten, or those that can be put together in new combinations to achieve new results. The bottom line however is not whether the knowledge is new, but whether it works in practice.

In The Wealth of Knowledge: Intellectual Capital and the Twenty-first Century Organizationby Thomas Stewart, in chapter 5, pages 85–87, the following key elements of a KM program are defined based on the experience of Steve Denning at the World Bank:

  1. communities of practice
  2. place (online presence for the communities)
  3. help desk
  4. Yellow Pages (who-knows-what directory)
  5. primer (FAQ)
  6. knowledge artifacts (records of previous projects, emphasizing best practices and lessons learned)
  7. bulletin board
  8. doorway (a provision for outside access)
  1. Communities of Practice
  2. Place (online presence)
  3. Help Desk
  4. Yellow Pages (expertise location)
  5. Primer (FAQ)
  6. Knowledge Artifacts
  7. Bulletin Board (threaded discussions)
  8. Doorway (external access)
  9. Demand (enhance using narrative)
  10. Imagination (for transformational innovation)
  11. Risk Management
  12. Values (conducive to sharing)
  13. Social Media (blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, etc.)
  1. Knowledge is always a plus
  2. Knowledge always helps innovation
  3. Knowledge is sticky
  4. The concept of knowledge is infinitely extendable
  5. Knowledge can be transferred
  6. Knowledge-sharing is always a good thing
  7. Knowledge is more important than values
  8. People always want to have better knowledge
  9. The task of KM is to enhance the supply of knowledge
  10. There are structural solutions to the lack of demand for knowledge
  11. KM is the same for all organizations
  12. Knowledge is the only sustainable competitive advantage
  13. Knowledge management will transform the business landscape
  14. KM succeeded and no one knows it
  15. It was the IT vendors who killed KM
  16. The right question to ask is: how do you make knowledge-based organizations?
  17. Knowledge is the raison d’être for organizations and explains competitive advantage

Is KM flourishing? I have kind of lost touch with what is going on in KM. So I don’t really know. My attention has turned more to M than to KM, and addressing the issues that caused most of the great KM programs to fail, as outlined in my last talk for SIKM leaders back in 2011. Since 2011 I have written over 600 articles about management and innovation for Forbes, so I have been quite busy, but not explicitly in KM. It would be good to have a frank discussion of where KM stands in the world these days. I know that KM still exists, in the sense that KM programs exist, people have titles with “KM” in them, your SIKM community goes on having talks, and so on. I have to confess that my sense back in 2011 was that even then KM was no longer at the cutting edge of organizations, for the reasons spelt out in my 2011 talk. Has that changed? Does the C-suite pay any real attention to KM these days? Why? What implications does that have?

  1. Strategy
  2. Organization
  3. Budget
  4. Incentives
  5. Community
  6. Technology
  7. Measurement
  1. Knowledge is key to business survival
  2. Communities are the heart and soul of knowledge sharing
  3. Virtual communities need physical interaction
  4. Passion drives communities of practice
  5. Knowledge sharing has an inside-out and an outside-in dimension
  6. Storytelling ignites knowledge sharing
  1. Knowledge sharing is at some point confused with IT
  2. Middle-management resists
  3. Vibrant communities of practice attract new talents
  1. Slice through the hype
  2. Fight off the IT firms
  3. Take a hard look at your own organization
  4. Set your knowledge management strategy
  5. Use narrative techniques to communicate your KM strategy
  6. Pay special attention to organizational values
  7. Encourage communities and cross-communities
  8. Set your incentives (carefully!)
  9. Measure progress (carefully!)
  10. Recognize the limits of knowledge

Articles by Others

  1. Interview by Alistair Craven
  2. Innovation: Fuel Your Imagination — Knowledge Management & the Art of Storytelling by Simon Lelic
  3. The Fad that Would Not Go Away — KM Magazine — World Bank Group by Bruno Laporte
  4. Q&A on the Book “The Age of Agile” by Ben Linders
  5. Interview: Storytelling & Social Networks by Seth Kahan


1. January 2001 Are There Laws of KM?

Knowledge sharing is becoming the central driver of the 21st century economy. Among the many companies which now recognize their stock of human capital as the major asset to business success, access to knowledge and just-in-time learning are more important than ever before. The continuous changes and innovations in information technology and telecommunications will make knowledge even more accessible.

As the unit costs of computing, communications and transactions decline towards zero, all economic sectors are going through major and rapid transformations. Economic success in this fast pace environment requires considerable agility and adaptability. Those countries, sectors, and organizations that can adapt will be the winners of the 21st century.

Over the last five-to-six years, companies have increasingly been using new organizational models to capture and spread new ideas and know-how. Communities of practice and networks have emerged to complement existing hierarchical structures. As a consequence they have radically galvanized knowledge sharing, learning and innovation.

As experience has been acquired of implementing knowledge sharing in many different organizations in different countries and different cultures in the public and private sector, the initial impression was one of diversity of terminology, concepts and approaches, along with the differences in context in which knowledge sharing was being applied.

More recently, however, as the richness of the knowledge sharing experience has been digested, it has become clearer that certain features of the knowledge sharing experience are common across most, if not all, organizations that attempt to implement an organization-wide program. If the universality of these features is confirmed by further study, these features might eventually attain the status of the “laws” of knowledge management. Some hypotheses as to what these universally experienced principles might be, include the following:

  • Knowledge sharing is essential to economic survival — In the new knowledge economy, knowledge sharing is sine qua non to survival. Traditional hierarchical organizations cannot cope with fast changing client demands unless they are able to agilely share knowledge among employees, partners, and clients. Innovations and the creation of new business lines depends on communal rather than individual knowledge. The knowledge of the community is always larger than the individual’s. Capturing what is already known by someone else in the group and adding one’s own knowledge is faster and more efficient than an individual reinventing a solution. This requires that organizations develop knowledge sharing culture and processes. In this situation, knowledge sharing is not merely an alternative strategic option: knowledge sharing is required for organizational survival.
  • Communities of practice are the heart and soul of knowledge sharing — Knowledge sharing is only taking place on a significant scale where organizations have organized themselves into communities of practice. These communities need to be “integrated” to the company’s strategy and its organizational structure. The phenomenon of communities of practice is known under different names. In the World Bank, they are called thematic groups; in Hewlett Packard they are “learning communities” or “learning networks”; in Chevron they are called “best practice teams”, and in Xerox they are know as “family groups”. Whatever the name, the formation of professional groupings where people come voluntarily together with others to share similar interests and learn from others’ skills has become the common feature of knowledge organizations. Vibrant communities operate in an environment of trust and mutual understanding which encourages learning and candid dialogue. They are safe places where people who do not know can learn from those who do know. Learning and knowledge transfer is accelerated when community members are electronically linked to each other by email or the World Wide Web. Insufficient by itself to create knowledge, information technology is a catalytic tool which gives global reach to community members across large distances and time zones. This would have been scarcely possible even ten years ago. What we have discovered in effect in effect is that building a learning a “learning organization” requires building communities within which that learning can take place. Without communities linked to structure, organizations don’t learn very fast at all.
  • Virtual community members also need physical interactions — While technology has dramatically expanded the possibilities for global communities operating in a virtual mode, with members scattered around the world communicating seamlessly by email and the world wide web, many organizations have found it difficult to launch communities without initial face-to-face meetings of at least some of the members. We don’t know of any true communities in which a portion of the members do not periodically get together in person, see each other face-to-face, look each other in the eye, sniff each other out, and interact so as to establish the bonds of trust and affinity that are needed in communities. Without such face-to-face meetings, most organizations have found it difficult to get communities even started. Once a community has been launched, the absence of periodic face-to-face time leads to entropy, as the community starts to lose energy, and eventually dies.
  • Passion is the driving force behind communities of practice — The success of the industrial revolution and the modern enterprise in building wealth has been built on a rational and mechanistic approach to problem solving. Clearly documented procedures and guidelines left little place, if any, to human emotions. The experience of knowledge sharing is showing, however, that communities of practice only flourish when their members are passionately committed to a common purpose, whether it be the engineering design of water supply systems, the pursuit of better medical remedies, or more efficient economic techniques. Efforts at building communities in a hierarchical or top-down fashion are at best successful on a temporary basis. Soon they come unstuck as members refuse to contribute their time to activities which have no meaningful purpose for them. Instead, they will be looking for professional interest groups which will give them a sense of professional and personal raison d’etre. This is a hard lesson for companies and executives who have spent their lives trying to keep emotion out of the work place. Nevertheless the lesson repeatedly emerges from case studies and benchmarking of knowledge sharing programs. As a result — for reasons of sheer efficiency and effectiveness — the modern workplace is finding it necessary to provide time and space for both the head and the heart.
  • Communities enrich organizations and personal lives — Nurturing communities of practice and building on positive human emotions in the workplace provides a key to creating and developing healthier forms of organizations. The limited liability company has been an invention that has helped generate immense wealth. It has also led for the most part to emotionally desiccated lives for the individuals who work in these organizations. The emergence of non-hierarchical communities of practice and the central role of passion in cementing them can lead not only to an enhanced form of organization capable of generating even greater wealth, but would also provide more meaningful lives for those who work within.
  • Knowledge sharing has inside-out and outside-in dynamic — Starting and implementing knowledge sharing in an organization must be done from inside, not outside. This means that using outsiders such as consultants to “kick start” or “do it for us” doesn’t work. The successful knowledge sharing programs appear to be driven by insiders. This means that the person charged with starting/implementing knowledge sharing must have credibility among both the line and staff functions, so that when he/she says “here’s the direction we’re going in,” people start moving in that direction. Similarly, when he/she says “this way, not that” or “that’s interesting/useful, let’s build on it/share it,” then they do, and also “that’s interesting, but not useful/not appropriate now, not part of the agreed-upon strategy” that person has the clout to stop those “red herrings” (well, almost stop them). It is vital that the changes be made from inside the organization, not grafted on from the outside (or by outsiders). The insiders must “own” the process, be involved in all aspects of it, make the changes happen, encourage others to make the changes and to get involved, tell the stories. Only they can do that legitimately, and with organizational (or internal political) savvy. That said, the inside person must also use the outside world to validate and “push” the agenda forward within the organization. For example, using the external recognition and knowledge fairs and expos as ways of showing that what is happening internally is valid, good, useful, appropriate, adds value, correct, etc. This legitimizes the activities, which consequently makes it “alright” for others to jump on board.
  • Storytelling ignites knowledge sharing — As organizations start on their knowledge journey, they inevitably find great difficulties in communicating complicated ideas through abstract forms of communication. This is even more true where this knowledge journey also implies large scale changes in behavior and understanding of the mission of the organization. Telling stories that build on real knowledge sharing situations, enables individuals to gather in some of the tacit understanding of the storyteller as well as recast the story into their own contextual work environment; hence adding their own tacit understanding to the process. Institutions are finding that the marriage of narrative and abstract communications provides a more powerful tool for sharing knowledge, than merely abstract communications.

These seven “laws” of knowledge management have three corollaries which are found across a very large number of organizations:

Knowledge sharing is at some point confused with IT — We don’t know of any organization trying to share knowledge where at some point building the knowledge sharing program has not been confused with building an information management system. Successful knowledge organizations have learned that building web sites and offering knowledge management IT tools neither create nor transfer knowledge by itself. They discovered that employees will stop visiting these web sites or use these IT tools if a community of practice is not bringing credibility and contributing content to these instruments. IT tools are made to facilitate knowledge sharing among users rather than constraining the emergence of a sharing culture by imposing complex technical requirements. Unfortunately, some organizations never learn this. They continue to solely pursue IT-based approaches long after they have been shown to be unproductive, continuing in a dysfunctional mode for years.

Middle-management resists — Knowledge sharing strategies are usually attractive to forward-looking chief executives who are anticipating efficiency gains, quality improvements and innovation. It is equally appealing to front-line employees who feel more valued in carrying out their work. When a knowledge sharing culture takes roots, employees seek solutions among their peers across traditional organizational boundaries. They stop looking solely up to their managers to solve their problems. Middle-managers are usually less enthused. The role of managers changes from control to facilitation and mentoring. It is not therefore surprising that middle-management resists such changes. This is a widespread phenomenon observed when introducing knowledge sharing in an organization. Middle managers have often built their lives and careers on mastering the hierarchical pathways of organizations. They can feel threatened by the emergence of new non-hierarchical work flows which no longer require command and control management behaviors. Communities of practice are indeed less orderly than hierarchies and it always takes time for middle-managers to understand that maintaining order can advantageously be replaced by facilitating and cheer-leading knowledge sharing initiatives.

Vibrant communities of practice attract new talents — The rapidly evolving knowledge economy is creating greater mobility among skilled workers. Companies are competing for these workers like never before. Those organizations that nurture communities of practice and let passion permeates the workplace offer a work environment more attractive to the best talents while retaining the knowledge workers they already have. Conversely, those that resist building communities end up with a work environment devoid of interest to their employees and unattractive to new talents, whatever compensation packages are offered.

The combination of the seven “laws” of knowledge sharing and their three “corollaries” opens new perspectives.

In organizations sharing knowledge, we see evidence of a virtuous circle emerging. Knowledge is shared. Communities are nurtured. The head and heart are integrated in the workplace. The process leads to greater economic productivity. Where this is occurring, organizations are more efficient and effective by offering an environment that builds employees satisfaction and loyalty.

At the same time, we see organizations that are trapped in a vicious cycle. Rigid hierarchical organizational structures prevent the sharing of knowledge, and undermines existing “natural” communities. Top-down approaches de-motivate the workforce and lead to the growth of bureaucracy, depleting the social capital of the organization. The organizations find it difficult to innovate, or how to get out of the vicious cycle.

In some organizations, both phenomena — the virtuous circle and the vicious cycle — are simultaneously happening in different parts of the organization. This evolution is occurring at different speeds in different organizations, but these phenomena are spreading.

The phenomenon appears to be global. These transformations are occurring initially in those parts of the global economy where email and the Web have reached the greatest penetration. This enables the formation and rapid growth of global communities. Knowledge sharing principles, however, will inexorably make their way across the entire global economy in the coming years.

A wider and deeper understanding of these trends would enable the virtuous circle to occur sooner and faster than it otherwise would. This would avoid counter-productive efforts to promulgate and reinforce ever-more tightly engineered hierarchical structures with all their attendant problems. Particular attention needs to be given to the following.

Understanding the implications and variants of knowledge sharing: New knowledge sharing organizations, offering a balance between hierarchical structures and human communities, have already emerged. More work is needed however to understand the implications, document various practices, and develop and disseminate more efficient ways of evolving the new form of organization. Over time, it will be important to document the economics of implementing — or not implementing — this new form of organization.

Helping organizations discover the benefits of knowledge sharing: The benefits of sharing knowledge are already widely understood by organizations that have studied knowledge management, such as APQC, the Conference Board and the business schools. Many managers around the world, however, still do not understand the basic principles of knowledge sharing and indeed are confused by the very term “knowledge management”. This terminology creates an impression of some kind of ephemeral fad or of an IT “black box”. This confusion is further reinforced by efforts of IT vendors to sell software and hardware as “solutions” to knowledge management. A more universal understanding of what is at stake in sharing knowledge remains to be disseminated.

Helping organizations avoid or minimize the KM traps: Knowledge sharing at some point inevitably gets confused with IT, and middle-management inexorably resist the implications of a sharing culture. This occurs even in organizations where everyone is aware of the IT and the controlling behavior pitfalls. It is almost as if organizations have to experience the pitfalls themselves in order to overcome them. Research is needed on whether it is possible to minimize or reduce the cost of these learning experiences. Can middle-management be induced to welcome the culture shift? If ways could be found to facilitate and accelerate the shift, large-scale savings could be made.

Communicating knowledge sharing principles: Relentlessly communicating the basic principles of knowledge sharing both inside and outside organizations may help them avoid falling into the knowledge management traps. New techniques for exploiting the potential of narrative are now emerging. These will contribute to make the laws of knowledge sharing truly universal.

2. September 2002 What’s the Best Way to Share Knowledge?

Steve Denning Asks AOK Members to Help Solve a Storytelling Problem

Introduction — by Jerry Ash

We welcome the return of Stephen Denning, former program manager, knowledge management at The World Bank, and well-known author of the The Springboard, which inspired thousands around the world to attempt storytelling as a tool to affect change in organizations.

Steve has the somewhat less — but important to us — distinction of being the “father of the AOK STAR Series Dialogues. A colleague of Steve’s, Michel Pommier, was a member of AOK two years ago when he suggested to Steve that they test a manuscript they were working on using a Discussion Group managed by AOK. They did, and it launched what is now known as the STAR Series Dialogues. The success of Steve’s first moderated discussion and the high profile of Steve Denning made it easy to recruit successive volunteer luminaries to these discussions.

Now, Steve has returned, ready to test a draft of a subsequent storytelling book — The Squirrel: The Seven Highest Value Forms of Organizational Storytelling. In a way, it’s a “how to” book to help people put into practice the power of storytelling they only heard about in Steve’s first book.

Be one of Steve’s collaborators, and you will soon be an accomplished storyteller using a tool that can transform complex thoughts into change agents at work and in your personal life. Enjoy!

Steve Denning’s problem

I have a knowledge sharing problem. Jerry Ash thinks that the problem might be of wider interest and has kindly invited me to share it with you and get your advice over the period September 30 to October 11, 2002.

As some of you know, from 1996–1999 in my work in KM at the World Bank, I stumbled on the power of a kind of story — springboard stories — stories that can communicate complex ideas and spark action. When I started writing a book about my experiences I was advised that no one would be interested in my story. Happily, they were wrong and the eventual book, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations continues to reach readers around the world.

From 2000 to 2002, I have been coaching executives in other organizations how to craft springboard stories in many different organizational environments, and I have learnt a great deal about what works and what doesn’t and what are the most common pitfalls of attempting this. I also came across six other high value forms of organizational storytelling that deal with other central management challenges:

  • how do you get people working together?
  • how do you share knowledge?
  • how do you tame the grapevine?
  • how do you communicate who you are?
  • how do you transmit values?
  • how do you lead people into the future?

My knowledge sharing problem is: how do I communicate what I have learnt? It’s fine if I can sit down with someone and spend a couple of days going through these ideas. But what if I can’t? How can I communicate this knowledge in writing?

The insights can be summarized in an analytic framework, but in this format, they represent a set of relationships that are not particularly easy to digest and implement.

One approach would be to expand this material into the format of a standard business book, spelling out the twelve steps to craft a springboard story, or, the six steps to tame the grapevine. See the material involved here.

When I started down this track, some of the feedback I received was: isn’t this also quite difficult to digest? Why don,t you communicate it through a story? Given my background, I couldn’t think of a good reason not to at least try.

The difficulty I faced in following the format of The Springboard is that whereas my work in 1996–1999 was in a single organization and fairly naturally formed a coherent story of an organization going through major change, my work in 2000–2002 is a sprawling adventure covering many organizations and many different kinds of experiences. It doesn’t naturally and easily form a single coherent story.

So then I was advised: why don’t you write in a fable like Who Moved My Cheese? or Fish! or The Goal? These books have apparently reached large numbers of readers.

Could a fable be the answer to my problem: what’s the best way to communicate the powerful new uses to which storytelling — one of the oldest of all human tools — is now being put in the modern economy?

Over the centuries, animal fables have reached diverse audiences with difficult and complex messages. Aesop and La Fontaine did it with a menagerie of animals, Franz Kafka with insects, George Orwell with pigs, James Agee with cows, James Quinn with a gorilla and Spencer Johnson with mice.

I decided to try my hand at a story using squirrels. Why squirrels?

Squirrels sparked my imagination in several ways. Some years ago, I was reading that wonderful compendium known as Harpers Index and I noticed an oddball statistic. It was the percentage of nuts that squirrels actually recover and eat as against the nuts they bury. I’ve forgotten the exact number, but it was remarkably low. The fact, if not the number, stuck in my mind as I watched families of squirrels run about my garden and I thought of the huge numbers of nuts that they were continually losing. Accordingly, this book tells the story of the transformation of an organization called Squirrel Inc. from a nut-burying to nut-storing organization. We follow the transformation as it goes from an improbability (chapter 1), a possibility (chapter 2), a probability (chapter 3), a lost opportunity (chapter 9) through to the dénouement in the epilogue.

Washington, D.C. has the highest density of squirrels anywhere in the world. I’ve always done much of my writing from a room that looks out over several gardens. From my window, I could see a large old mulberry tree and it was remarkable how many squirrels ran and played on its wide horizontal branches. From time to time, I would look up from my writing and as I saw countless pairs of squirrels gamboling and frolicking on this tree with such evident pleasure, my spirits would lift. It was obvious that the long horizontal branches of the mulberry tree made a wonderful playground for them. Then one day, I looked out the window and saw no mulberry tree! My neighbors had without warning cut down the tree! Since a mulberry tree is a messy thing in a city garden, I understood their action, but I was shocked on behalf of the squirrels. How would they feel when they found that their mulberry tree had been cut down?

A kinder gentler inspiration came from Grace Marmor Spruch’s wonderful book, Squirrels At My Window: Life with a Remarkable Gang of Urban Squirrels, which meticulously records and describes the life and times of a group of real-life city squirrels whose personalities and foibles are not too removed from those of humans. So I pressed ahead with the squirrel fable, and you can read a number of chapters.

Among the characters that one meets in my tale are:

  • Diana, an up-and-coming executive at Squirrel Inc. who discovers
  • the power of springboard stories;
  • Whyse, an advocate of storytelling that communicates who you are;
  • Mark, who uses storytelling to transmit values;
  • Hester, who uses storytelling to get people working together;
  • Mocha, who shows how humor can be used to tame the grapevine;
  • Howe, who deploys storytelling to share knowledge; and
  • Sandra, who pursues storytelling to lead into the future.

So my question is: is this the best way to communicate my knowledge?

I realize that there is a certain type of reader who reacts negatively to animal fables, particularly the kind of reader whose real-life attic is persistently invaded by successive colonies of hard-to-get-rid-of squirrels.

But what are the alternatives?

One alternative would be to transpose the story to a human context. If so what would be a context that would be of interest to readers from many different sectors and businesses?

Another alternative would be to tell the story of my work in 2000–2002, accepting the fact that it will be a sprawling story that doesn’t naturally and easily form a single coherent narrative.

Another alternative would be to do a fieldbook of stories that I have encountered over this period.

Another alternative would be to go back to the standard business format, spelling out the twelve steps to craft, a springboard story or the six steps to tame the grapevine in standard analytic format.

A final alternative that is sometimes suggested to me is: all of the above.

However in this case, the question really becomes in order should they be attempted?

So that’s my problem. I have (I think) a good deal of useful knowledge. I want to share this with others. I get indications that others are interested in getting access to this knowledge. What’s the best way to share this it?

I have framed the question in the context of my particular situation and knowledge. But the question also has a more general application. What’s the best way to transfer knowledge when you have (a) someone with knowledge (b) the knower wants to share it and © there are people who are interested in getting the knowledge? So often in KM, we’re focused on the problems of organizations where the people don’t want to share or others are not interested in learning or the organization doesn’t permit or encourage sharing, that we don’t spend any time on the (apparently) simpler problem: when you don’t have any of those obstacles in the way, what’s the best way to share knowledge?


  1. A102: Seven Principles of Continuous Innovation: Reinventing the Workplace
  2. A303: Sparking Enthusiasm for Change
  1. Workshop 1: Organizational Storytelling & Narrative Patterns Master Class with Dave Snowden — This interactive, full-day workshop taught by two well-known and entertaining experts, reveals insights, material, and trade secrets on the use of narrative and storytelling as a tool for management and leadership in organizations. Designed for change agents and knowledge managers, it demonstrates how stories prove to be an effective way to understand, direct, and influence your organization’s culture — essential for effectively communicating knowledge and associated learning for organizational performance and productivity. Denning shares his experience of knowing when to create and tell a story to achieve the desired response and, ultimately, the right business results. Snowden explains some easily learned techniques for anecdotal elicitation and discusses the nature of interaction in understanding the cultural attitudes of those interactions within each community of practice. The highly regarded workshop provides tools, techniques, and exercises for creating different stories and approaches to narrative for business.
  2. C106: Seeding Change Through Tales — Tales, stories, or narrative patterns have the power to persuade, and, to effect change. Denning shares his catalog of storytelling so that you will know which type of story to tell in a particular situation. He uses multiple examples to discuss how storytelling is effectively used to foster collaboration and share knowledge in different organizations.
  • 2008 The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action through Narrative

1. Radical Management: Creating a Safe Space for KM

2. Transforming the workplace with radical management

3. How to Make the Whole Organization Agile

4. Where does KM stand in the world these days?

5. The Reinvention of Management: Why do great KM programs fail?


1. YouTube Channel

2. YouTube

3. Making the Entire Firm Agile (& Lean)

4. The Power of Leadership Storytelling

5. Transforming the workplace with radical management


1. Amazon Author Page

2. Books offers in which I participated

3. The Age of Agile: How Smart Companies Are Transforming the Way Work Gets Done

4. The Leader’s Guide to STORYTELLING: Mastering the Art & Discipline of Business Narrative

5. SQUIRREL INC: A Fable of Leadership and Storytelling

6. STORYTELLING IN ORGANIZATIONS: How Narrative and Storytelling Are Transforming 21st Century Management with John Seely Brown, Katalina Groh, and Larry Prusak

7. THE SPRINGBOARD: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations

8. The Leader’s Guide to RADICAL MANAGEMENT: Re-inventing the Workplace for the 21st Century

9. The Secret Language of LEADERSHIP: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative

Part One: What Is Transformational Leadership? 1

Introduction: Ten Mistakes Transformational Leaders Make 3

1. The Secret Language of Leadership 21

Part Two: The Language of Leadership: Key Enablers 51

2. Articulating a Clear, Inspiring Goal 53

3. The Leader’s Own Story: Committing to the Goal 65

4. Mastering the Audience’s Story 80

5. Cultivating Narrative Intelligence 92

6. Telling Truthful Stories 116

7. Leadership Presence: The Body Language of Leadership 132

Part Three: The Language of Leadership: Key Steps 147

8. Getting People’s Attention 149

9. Stimulating Desire 166

10. Reinforcing with Reasons 187

11. Continuing the Conversation 199

12. Epilogue 211


  1. Appendix 1: Presentation to the Change Management Committee of the World Bank: April 1996 221
  2. Appendix 2: Templates and Exercises 229
  3. Appendix 3: What’s Your Narrative Intelligence? 235

10. Next Generation Knowledge Management: Transforming theory into practice by Jerry Ash

  • Chapter 1: Are There Laws of Knowledge Management? with Michel Pommier and Lesley Shneier
  • Chapter 2: New Management for a New Environment

11. Knowledge Capital: How Knowledge-Based Enterprises Really Get Built by Jay Chatzkel: Chapter 17: Stephen Denning: The Springboard Story

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

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store