The power of stories in the construction industry: lessons from other domains

Publication Date15 November 2011
DOIhttps://doi.org/10.1108/03055721111188548
Pages466-482
AuthorJodith K.L. Leung,Patrick S.W. Fong
SubjectInformation & knowledge management
The power of stories in the
construction industry:
lessons from other domains
Jodith K.L. Leung and Patrick S.W. Fong
Department of Building & Real Estate, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University,
Kowloon, Hong Kong
Abstract
Purpose – Storytelling is regarded as a fundamental way for humans to communicate with each
other, no matter whether in the form of folklore, myths or war stories. Storytelling is applied in
management and organisational practices in order to achieve specific purposes. Management
activities within projects are similar to managing organisations with high complexity. Storytelling
can then be applied in the construction project environment to achieve specific management
purposes. This paper aims to explore the potential roles of storytelling in the construction industry
through analysing its applications in other sectors, and to align the applications of storytelling to
construction projects.
Design/methodology/approach – Through an in-depth literature review of the nature of stories
and storytelling, and their roles in management and organisational practices, this study determines
how stories can contribute to the effective sharing of knowledge in the construction project
environment. Cases of storytelling applications in construction projects are also presented, with the
aim of showing the uniqueness of storytelling.
Findings Storytelling is a potential approach for managing construction project knowledge
through the features of stories and storytelling by preserving, transferring, and learning from current
or past experiences of both construction projects and firms.
Research limitations/implications – The findings illustrate gaps in the current knowledge and
pave the path for future research in this particular area.
Originality/value – The research examines promising implementations of stories and storytelling in
the construction industry through examination of the literature.
Keywords Story, Storytelling,Knowledge management, Constructionindustry, Project-based,
Narratives,Organizational culture
Paper type Conceptual paper
1. Introduction
The Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveller
coming down the road, and the Sun said: “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us
can cause that traveller to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger. You begin.” So
the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the
traveller. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveller wrap his cloak round him,
’til at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his
glory upon the traveller, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on (Aesop et al.,
2004).
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
www.emeraldinsight.com/0305-5728.htm
The work described in this paper was fully supported by a grant from the Research Grants
Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China (Project No. PolyU 5165/08E).
VINE
41,4
466
VINE: The journal of information and
knowledge management systems
Vol. 41 No. 4, 2011
pp. 466-482
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
0305-5728
DOI 10.1108/03055721111188548
This is a well-known story from Aesop’s fables, called The Wind and the Sun. This
story expresses a moral, namely that kindness is more effective than severity (Aesop
et al., 2004). Why did Aesop use this fable to express the moral rather than merely
stating it? What do you think about the interpretation between a story and a message?
Do you think that a story is easier to understand if it has embedded intellect or a
message? The telling of fables and other forms of story is not new and is an old
cognitive method with a long history. Storytelling has been applied to humans’
common practices in order to provide a way of connecting people, knowing about the
world, creating reality, remembering, and visioning the future (Sunwolf and Frey,
2001). These are the values of stories and storytelling for individuals’ cognition.
Storytelling is also prominently adopted in management and organisational practices
in order to achieve specific purposes such as developing the identity of an organisation
or leader, connecting individuals and organisations, managing organisational change,
and transferring and saving knowledge. For example, companies write their founders’
stories on company web sites to develop their organisational identities. There has been
a considerable amount of discussion about the roles and uses of storytelling in the
organisational context. Denning (2001) discusses how to use storytelling to initiate
organisational change, and provides examples from his experience. Boje (1991)
conducted a study in a large office-supply firm on how people perform storytelling to
make sense of events, introduce change, and gain political advantage during their
conversations. Meyer (2004) provided empirical evide nce that stories have a
meaningful potential as a means to transfer knowledge and as a measuring device
for contexts conducive to knowledge sharing. These explorations of storytelling
exemplify the application of storytelling to organisational practices. In a
project-specific context, Amtoft (1994) proposed to write the common story of each
project through collecting project stories from stakeholders, written by a project
manager aiming to collect the common purpose of and opinions about the project.
Pritchard (2005) determines the impact of sharing stories on managing risks in the
project environment through exploring the implementation of risk stories, settings, and
personal interest. However, there are very few studies that have investigated the role of
stories and storytelling in the context of the construction industry. This research aims
to explore the potential roles of storytelling in construction projects through analysing
its applications in other sectors, and attempts to align the applications of storytelling t o
construction projects. The findings illustrate gaps in the current knowledge and pave
the path for future research in this particular area. This research allows promising
implementations of stories and storytelling in the construction industry through
examination of the literature. The rest of this paper is divided into six sections. The
first and second sections explore what stories and storytelling are from the structure of
stories and mode of human communication. They provide explanations for the
common usage of stories and storytelling in human communication. The third section
explores different forms of stories appearing in organisations. The fourth discusses the
functions of storytelling in human activities and organisational settings through
analysing storytelling approaches in organisational settings. This section gives the
core concepts of possible contributions of stories and storytelling in organisations. The
fifth section examines the roles and functions of stories in the construction industry
from the knowledge management angle. This section determines the possible
implementations and contributions of storytelling in the construction industry. The last
The power
of stories
467

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