Monday, November 15, 2021

Learning about Hardly Ever: The Role of Storytelling

Have you encountered the senior member of the organization who always tells stories? The one who is initially fascinating but who you gradually learn to avoid longer conversations with because the same stories are repeated over and over and have nothing to do with your work? What a bore. But storytelling can actually be very important in organizational learning, especially if it involves rare and important events.

This is what Christopher G. Myers examined in a paper published in Administrative Science Quarterly. The research looked at flight nurses in helicopters, the kind of people who have dramatic work that TV series love to portray, and on TV they typically do heroic stuff that calls for a lot of knowledge about how the patient is affected. How much of that is reality?

The learning problem is obvious. Helicopter patient pickups are done as rarely as possible because they are very expensive, and the patient conditions are always urgent and critical because that’s when helicopter pickups make sense. So, the need for heroic work is not an exaggeration. But the heroic work needs to be accurate too, and here the problem is that there are so many ways that a patient can become urgent and critical that it is very difficult for a flight nurse to learn on the job. They still need to learn about “hardly ever” events because these events occur, and incorrect treatment can be very consequential for the patient.

So what do they do? Tell stories. When changing shifts, they will chat, and the chat is regularly about what has happened in the previous shift, especially if it was unusual. That way they can learn on the job using not only their own experience but also the experience of others, as told through stories. If the story is dramatic enough, it will not just spread to the next shift but will also be retold a few times to different people, who will all learn about the “hardly ever” event and how it was solved.

This is the same social mechanism as the boring senior worker who you may have encountered, but it is a great way to learn fast in work that has much variation. Come to think of it, even that senior worker could be a source of learning because the stories most often told are usually about something from the past that does not happen often these days. Are these stories relevant? Sometimes they turn out to be. It is nearly two years ago that airlines encountered a sharp drop in the passenger traffic because of Covid. Did any of them benefit from stories about the drop in passenger traffic following the 9/11 attack? Possibly so.

Stories often involve mainly socializing and bonding, and they are ways that people form ties in organizations by sharing their experiences, whether useful or not. But in some forms of work, and on some occasions, storytelling is also a crucial learning process that helps the organization deal with “hardly ever” events.

Myers, Christopher G. 2021. Storytelling as a tool for vicarious learning among air medical transport crews. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming