Organization story

Organization story

Organizational stories are the texts, spoken or written, that usually involve a plot of different interconnected events, binding different characters together about an organization. Stories may be based on actual events or may involve fantastic characters and incidents. Most people would look at stories as narratives, although the precise relation between story and narrative is disputed. What is not disputed is:
#that stories are often charged with emotion and meaning,
#that they have a 'plastic' relation with literal reality, and
#that they are significant sense-making devices.

In the past fifteen years, interest in organizational stories has increased considerably. In particular, there has been a recognition that:
# a great deal of stories are told in and about organizations;
# many of these stories are important in disseminating knowledge and enhancing organizational learning;
# we can learn a lot about an organization by listening carefully to the stories told by its members;
# stories can instigate processes of social and organizational change, for the better or for the worse;
# good stories can have a profound effect on audiences, building solidarity, focusing energy and unleashing creativity;
# leadership involves the management of meaning and emotions, both of which rely crucially on using stories, allegories, metaphors, labels and other narrative devices.

This current interest in organizational stories is part of a broader tendency of narrativization of organizational theory, an emphasis on language, metaphors, talk, stories and narratives not as parts of a superstructure erected on top of the material realities of organizations, such as structure, power, technology and so forth, but rather as parts of the very essence of organization. This has challenged standard views of organizations built around the themes of bureaucracy, hierarchy and authority, and emphasizes, if not the primacy, at least the relative autonomy of the symbolic dimension. This is itself part of the broader linguistic turn in the social and human sciences – a tendency to view many social and psychological phenomena as constituted through language, sustained through language and challenged through language.

There are different approaches in the study of organizational stories and narratives. At the most daring and extreme, some have argued that organizations are themselves discursive effects, sub-narratives within the grand narrative of modernity (e.g. Czarniawska (1997) and Grant (1998)). From this perspective, organizations share the fate of other effects of modernity, such as the sovereign self, the body or indeed 'facts', becoming discursive constructions. Other theorists have looked at narratives as constitutive of organizations but not as fully constituting them. From this perspective,

"buildings are built, products are manufactured, services are rendered beyond (and because of) all this organizational talk. Thus discourse and talk are central to organization and organizing ... but so is non-discursive action" (Hardy, Lawrence, and Phillips 1998, p. 63).

Narratives in organizations may appear in many forms, including stories (official and unofficial), advertisements, brochures, reports, and so forth, yet they do not exhaust the domain of organization. Important as it is to study them, they are not enough for a complete understanding of organizational or social practices.

Stories are frequently used interchangeably with narratives, narratives with texts and texts with discourse. In particular, there has been a tendency among numerous theorists (following the practice of journalists) to stretch the idea of 'story' so that it encompasses virtually any aspect of sensical discourse. "What is the story?" is seen as an invitation to offer any explanation. Any discursive device that generates and sustains meaning and any meaningful text is then seen as a story (Boje 1991). Such an approach unfortunately obliterates some of the unique qualities of stories and narratives that make them vivid and powerful but also fragile sense-making devices. Some authors have expressed reservations at such pan-narrativist views, arguing that not all texts are narratives and not all narratives are stories. Narratives can then be seen as particular types of text and stories as particular types of narrative. Unlike definitions, labels, lists, recipes and other texts, stories involve temporal chains of inter-related events or actions, undertaken by characters (Gabriel 2000). They are not mere snapshot photographic images, but require sequencing and plots (Czarniawska 1997; Czarniawska 1999; Polkinghorne 1988). Narratives may differ in their relation to actual events, from fairly accurate accounts to totally fantastic ones. One of their vital qualities is that precision is often sacrificed in the interest of effect, in what is known as ‘poetic licence’. Good narratives and, in particular, good stories are memorable, pithy and full of meaning, stimulating emotion and fantasy. This is what makes them quite powerful devices in management of meaning and emotion and the diffusion of knowledge.

It is now generally appreciated that much knowledge in organizations does not assume the form of logico-scientific generalizations, theories and formulas, but has a narrative character – it amounts to a large reservoir of stories, tales, recipes and experiences (Orr 1996) that are traded in what are often seen as communities of practice. This is highly specific, informal knowledge that complements and qualifies ‘information’ available through official channels. Within different organizations numerous mutually reinforcing narratives, story-lines and other texts may coalesce in particular discourses which express the interests and concerns of specific groups. Thus, for instance, within the same organization a managerial discourse (emphasising efficiency, quality and customer service) may coexist with other discourses, such as a cynical discourse (made up of disruptive or recalcitrant stories), a nostalgic discourse (made of or idealized stories from the past) and a professional discourse (extolling professional independence). Boje (2001) refers to the space where stories may emerge from discourses as ante-narrative – the existence of a fecund narrative space and the willingness of individuals to take a bet (an ‘ante’) that what they say, individually or in groups, will shape up into meaningful stories. For this reason, Boje insists that most organizational stories are co-created by many participants as well as having many different meanings (1995).

Stories then can be seen as representing facts-as-experience rather than facts-as-information (Gabriel 1991). They are capable of rousing and communicating emotion or charging events with symbolic significance and of framing, distorting and altering aspects of events in the interest of delivering a ‘telling narrative’. The truth of the story is then not to be judged by its accuracy (the way that the truth of information may be judged) but by its capacity to express of a compelling set of meanings. Storytellers are bonded with their audiences with what Gabriel (2004) calls a ‘narrative contract’ – a deal under which the audience grants poetic licence to the storyteller in return for a meaningful narrative. All the same, storytellers can violate this narrative contract by insisting that they personally experienced events which later turn out to have been fictitious or by abusing the gullibility of their audience to deliver ‘spin’, disinformation and lies.

Increasingly stories form important part of organizational research. Even if not literally true or accurate, stories in organizations express emotional and symbolic realities revealing the participants deeper feelings towards each other, the leadership or the organizational as a whole. In this sense, they conform with Aristotle’s (1991) conception that poetry can reveal deeper truths that history (which remains tied to ‘facts’) is unable to reach.


* Aristotle. 1991. "The Rhetoric", Edited by H. C. Lawson-Tancred. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
* Boje, D. M. 1991. "The storytelling organization: A study of story performance in an office-supply firm." "Administrative Science Quarterly" 36.
** —. 1995. "Stories of the storytelling organization: A postmodern analysis of Disney as 'Tamara Land'." "Academy of Management Review" 38:997-1035.
** —. 2001. Narrative methods for organizational and communication research. London: Sage.
* Czarniawska, Barbara. 1997. "Narrating the organization: Dramas of institutional identity". Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
** —. 1999. "Writing management: Organization theory as a literary genre." Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Gabriel, Yiannis. 1991. "Turning facts into stories and stories into facts: A hermeneutic exploration of organizational folklore." "Human Relations" 44:857-875.
** —. 2000. "Storytelling in organizations: Facts, fictions, fantasies." Oxford: Oxford University Press.
** —. 2004. "The narrative veil: Truth and untruths in storytelling." Pp. 17-31 in Myths, Stories and Organizations: Premodern narratives for our times, edited by Y. Gabriel. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Grant, David, Tom Keenoy, and Cliff Oswick. 1998. "Discourse and organizations." London: Sage.
* Hardy, Cynthia, Thomas B. Lawrence, and Nelson Phillips. 1998. "Talk and action: Conversations and narrative in interorganizational collaboration." Pp. 65-83 in Discourse and Organization, edited by D. Grant, T. Keenoy, and C. Oswick. London: Sage.
* Orr, Julian E. 1996. "Talking about machines: An ethnography of a modern job." Ithaca, NY: ILR Press/Cornell.
* Polkinghorne, D. E. 1988. "Narrative knowing and the human sciences." Albany: State University of New York Press.

ee also

* Organizational storytelling

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