What do children’s nursery rhymes, medieval morality plays and allegorical art all have in common? They have all been used as means of passing on information before the advent of more technical approaches, such as cheap printing, enabled broad literacy. Storytelling is a means of passing on information that can still be found around the world. Here, the generations pass on information through learning by rote, a means of codifying this information. The general forms of this are through:

  • Elders or religious leaders within the community,
  • Specific “keepers of the truth,” such as named storytellers,
  • The use of song or rhyme,
  • The use of plays,
  • Play itself,
  • Art and
  • Writings.

Before the age of general literacy, a means of getting information through to people was required, and travelling players in mystery and morality plays ensured that morality and religious messages were promulgated. Nursery rhymes and folk songs ensured that basic information - for example, political (“Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary”) or basic educational (“One, Two, Buckle My Shoe”) - would be passed down from one generation to another. Many folk songs are based around sex education (“The Nutting Girl”), couched in terms that kept them innocuous to those who should not understand them. In many tribal cultures, the equivalent of a shaman has the responsibility of collating and passing on information, covering the history of the tribe and the knowledge of herbal medicines through storytelling.

In addition to traditional informational systems, Quocirca has found several relatively pieces of “lost” information while carrying out research into advanced sustainability approaches. For example, a 14th century Abbot’s kitchen at Glastonbury Abbey in the UK has a distinctive shape that drew cold air at the bottom of the building, venting it (along with the smoke from the cooking) through a specially shaped cupola in the roof. Likewise the idea of the sash window - which was designed so two windows in the same frame could be slid up from the bottom and down from the top - allowed the top pane and the bottom pane to be pulled up and down a little way. Warm air escaped through the top gap, pulling in cool, clear air through the bottom - creating natural convection. Modern people only slide up the bottom window and wonder why a room does not cool down, showing how information is no longer being passed down properly between generations.

These and many other areas show how we have, over a relatively short period of time, lost the habit of passing on information in a meaningful manner. Instead, we rely on information that comes from sources that we should apply a little more due diligence to – is it really true that an 18 year old posting information through a blog should be the ultimate arbitrator of the truth, for example? What is new seems to be best, and things that were done yesterday are old hat and should be forgotten as soon as possible.

Within the “new civilization” of the corporate world, we have the opportunity to get back to something similar to traditional approaches. The use of wikis provides the capability for information to be garnered from those within an organization with the experience to be able to say which approaches work, while enabling those who are less experienced to see if the approach can be improved upon through the application of new technologies.

However, many of the wiki implementations fail to do this and, often, for fairly simple reasons. Many do not try to gain the seed information from those who are the existing gurus; instead they just hope for good ideas to come from anywhere. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but ideas management is a different subject, and different wikis should be set up for this. Once an idea has been through a few iterations, it may well become a seed for a best practice wiki.

Also, many wikis are not moderated sufficiently. Entries rapidly get changed with incorrect information, go off topic or become a content fight between a couple of people. Corporate wikis are not a free for all - they have to be controlled, inappropriate behavior must be nipped in the bud and content has to be has to be culled as applicable.

Finally, the old adage “knowledge is power” can be the death of such a wiki. The main idea is to share the base knowledge in the same way that storytelling always has done. The reader has to be able to pick up the bare bones of the idea and its implementation rapidly – but also must be able to add their own thoughts back into the system to iteratively improve the story.

As with the majority of collaborative approaches, the key is in the initial ground rules and then with the application of policy. Make sure that everyone is aware of the usage principals and what will happen if they do not adhere to them (i.e., their input will be deleted). Make sure that the principals are enforced - even though you may have to revisit them on a regular basis to adapt to changing requirements. Draw out the best from the wiki, and give credit where credit is due, encouraging correct usage.

For many organizations, the knowledge held within it is key. Lewis Platt, ex-head of HP, summed up the problem for HP in the following statement: “If we only knew what we know at HP, we would be three times more profitable.” Using wikis as a means of storytelling enables organizations to gain a better handle on what they do know - and it could have an impact on the bottom line.

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