The sensemaking role of digital storytelling

Previous page: Setting the scene

Much of the literature around storytelling in organisations describes how individuals make sense of events, especially in response to change, and how that then goes on to impact behaviour and an organisation’s capacity to change. This is an ongoing, organic process that most people may not be critically aware of.

What Netskills is trying to do is something quite different and there is not much in the literature about this although it is unlikely to be a unique case in practice. Netskills’ approach is much more self-conscious than the narrative construction and here-and-now storytelling as identified by Boje (2008) and Gabriel (2000) in particular. Digital storytelling is being used as a vehicle for a more active approach to sensemaking.

Superficially, the intention behind the use of digital storytelling is as an additional way of revealing the work that Netskills does to its stakeholders. These stories, when produced, will sit alongside and complement existing communication channels mentioned by the participants such as the organisation’s website and the recently created blog. HM referred to these stories as a form of “soft marketing”. Netskills has a commercial need to raise revenue to survive through its workshop programme and project-related activities. Ensuring that income requires awareness-raising activities for stakeholders and customers

Rather than seeing the production of the digital stories as a promotional exercise, they stories can also be viewed at an attempt at sensemaking. But, what sort of sensemaking? As these stories are intended to be outward-facing, portraying a view of Netskills’ work to the world they are probably too formal to come under Gabriel’s (2000) definition of organisational folklore. They have more in common with the narrative forms that Boje (1998) describes.

Narrative, according to Boje, is an ordering force that tries to draw together meanings in a controlled way. Netskills’ digital stories are intended to perform that function, selectively drawing together aspects of its work to give a clearer picture than is possible through the use of the standard short, fact-based news stories that they have traditionally used. Examples of some of the stories produced by Netskills (some from after the research was undertaken) can be found in Appendix 1. It could be argued that they are presented in such a way as to fit Boje’s idea of linear narratives as they all have an identifiable form, are self-contained and to some extent have a beginning-middle-end structure.

I would say that they also conform to the idea of a fragmented narrative, being smaller pieces of a jigsaw of artefacts that taken collectively form a larger narrative about the nature of Netskills’ people and activities. As I’ll discuss, many of the participants saw digital storytelling as a way of establishing a stronger sense of organisational identity. Each individual story, given that they are quite short, would only give a partial view of that but as the collection of stories grows and audience will get a clearer picture of what that identity is.

As Reissner (2002, 2010) argues, stories that are told by individuals within organisations are to help with negotiating change and facilitate learning. Netskills is itself going through a period of change. Part of that is to do with changes to higher education funding stemming from the Browne review (2010) but also from the Wilson review into the operation and funding of Jisc , Netskills’ parent body (Jisc 2013). Although no interviewees linked the storytelling practices at Netskills specifically with these two reports, their implementation has led to a period of change within higher education and Jisc itself which is ongoing but has led to various structural and funding changes and a perceived need to demonstrate the value that is offered by Netskills, both to Jisc and Netskills’ host institution Newcastle University. A number of participants made reference to relationships with Jisc and Newcastle Univeristy:

“It’s great for us and our stakeholders (Jisc and the university). It will get them to pay more attention to us; see us as more important and relevant to them.” EP

As Baumeister and Newman (1994) outline, the drivers that lead people to tell stories include a need to be seen as attractive and competent. These organisational stories can be seen as having similar aim.

Likewise, many authors discuss stories can be used as a method for individuals to gain a sense of agency and control during periods of change. To a certain extent I believe that is also going on with Netskills. Stories are a way to demonstrate expertise and value to stakeholders and doing so is an attempt to play an active role in the wider set of changes that are going on.

Next page: The identity-forming role of digital storytelling