Is Your Organization Losing Its Brain? Collecting Stories to Transfer Knowledge – Tip #56

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Are you perceiving symptoms of your organization losing knowledge and expertise? Oftentimes, top executives are not aware of the wealth of knowledge that’s lost as experienced employees retire and carry their expertise with them.

“In the U.S., roughly 10,000 people reach retirement age every day. And though not everyone who turns 62 or 65 retires right away, enough do that some companies are trying to head off the problem…Losing veteran workers is a challenge, even for big companies like General Mills…But the older-worker brain drain is a big concern for industries like mining and health care.” says Yuki Noguchi in her article “Businesses Try To Stave Off Brain Drain As Boomers Retire.”

“Not only would a huge number of employees become eligible for retirement in the next five to 10 years, the company had done little to retain the wealth of institutional knowledge they would be taking with them. From the intricacies of key client relationships to mainframe computer languages no longer being taught in school, many experienced workers possessed critical know-how that, if lost, would be costly-if not impossible-for the company to replace.” says Douglas MacMillan in his article “Issue: Retiring Employees, Lost Knowledge.”

For some organizations, systematically collecting stories is key to preserving knowledge and expertise. What is your organization doing to preserve its brain? What steps are being taken to retain wisdom and add more vitality to new knowledge?

Collecting Stories – The StoryCorp Story

The winner of the million-dollar TED Prize 2015, StoryCorps is a company that is in the business of collecting stories. They would bring together people who knew each other well and put them inside a recording booth for 40 minutes. For the allotted time, husband and wife, mother and son, father and daughter would have a real conversation which would dig deeper into the stories that they have inside.

“StoryCorps grew out of a very a simple idea: we wanted to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record their life stories. We built a soundproof booth in Grand Central Terminal and invited people to come in pairs and interview each other about their lives, with the help of a trained StoryCorps facilitator. Soon after starting the project, I knew we had created something pretty powerful. Many StoryCorps participants tell us that the forty minutes they spend inside our booth are among the most meaningful minutes of their lives.” – Dave Isay, Founder of StoryCorps
Some of StoryCorps’ Top Stories

Below are samples of some of the most compelling StoryCorps stories. These are real people who lived to tell their tales. View these videos to appreciate the power of real stories in conveying ideas and connecting to audiences.

Miss Devine

Marine Lance Cpl Travis Williams 

For trainers, designers and learning leaders, stories become a library for learning. What you have at your disposal are resource persons who really live through the stories. This carries an unquestionable authority because these are their stories and they are living witnesses to what transpired. When Marine Lance Cpl. Travis Williams talked about his experience in Iraq, nobody can question his account because he was there. 

Surefire Steps in Collecting Stories and Transferring Knowledge

Now that you know the importance of collecting stories, you must be wondering how in the world are you going to start doing it? The good news is, you already know how to collect stories! The bad news is, you’re not aware you’re doing it. We subconsciously collect stories all the time without us knowing that we are doing it. We talk to our colleagues about their lives, hobbies, favorite food, past relationships and we store these stories in our memories. Every conversation that we have with another person is a story in the making. Here are a few steps to make your story collecting process more systematic:

1. Talk to people 
You can’t just expect people to come flocking to you with their stories, you have to talk to them. You have to show interest in their lives and make them feel that even their most boring stories are important to you. When people sense your interest in their stories, they will feel important and will open up. Stories will just come pouring out.

2. Ask open-ended questions 
Asking categorical questions is a good trial technique but it’s the quickest way to kill a story. On the other hand, open-ended questions open the mind and scours the memory for stories.StoryCorps has some sample questions that would make the story flow. 

3. Listen to people 
Dave Isay added that listening is a form of generosity. Don’t pull out your smartphone when interviewing somebody! This is being disrespectful and you will instantly cut off your connection with the person you are talking to. When you listen, you can make thoughtful follow-up questions and follow the thread of the story closely.

4. Training leaders and experienced workers on passing stories 
It’s easy to assume many experienced workers know how to train, coach, mentor and pass stories. To transfer knowledge effectively, you can train experienced workers to be more effective with these skills areas. According to Jim Rottman, head of American Express’ workforce transformation group, “One of the things that we’ve really focused on is paying as much attention to the person who’s transferring the knowledge as to the person who’s receiving [it]… That means getting phased retirees to learn new teaching tools like ‘learning maps,’ or visual representations of systems and processes, and interactive media like wikis, instant messaging, and audio posted on a company intranet.”

5. Create a story database 
Keep the stories that you have collected in a storage where you can easily retrieve them for future use. In this day and age of audio and video recording it’s a good idea to keep your interviews in an extra hard drive or a cloud storage as files grow in size. This way, you can access them anywhere.

Join a Beta Project on Small Bites Learning

At Vignettes Learning, we have different software models to help organizations build story-based lessons, create engaging content and assist your organization in collecting, storing and sharing stories and experiences.

The screen below is an example of a Small Bites Learning. Contact Ray Jimenez to be part of the Study Group.

With Small Bites Learning, learners, trainers, designers, workers and professionals can publish stories and ask their teams to share their own experiences. Small Bites Learning is easy to prepare and requires less time. Hence, it allows more time for participants to actively contribute and provide feedback.

Here are some more samples:

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic. Sound off in the comments section!


Rebecca Smith: StoryCorps Wins $1 million TED Prize: [March 11, 2015]

TED Staff: Announcing our TED Prize 2015 winner: Dave Isay of StoryCorps: [November 17, 2014]

Dave Isay: 7 StoryCorps stories that Dave Isay just can’t get out of his head: [November 17, 2014]

Yuki Noguchi: Businesses Try To Stave Off Brain Drain As Boomers Retire: [January 15, 2015]

Douglas MacMillan: Issue: Retiring Employees, Lost Knowledge: [August 20, 2008]

Vanessa Chase: Story Collecting Tip – How To Collect Donor Stories

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
“Helping Learners Learn Their Way”

2 thoughts on “Is Your Organization Losing Its Brain? Collecting Stories to Transfer Knowledge – Tip #56

  1. I really like the emphasis you put on stories lately – like I've said before, it's a great way of transfering knowledge and learning!

  2. Thank you for kind comments, John. Co-advocates of the story-based approach, like you are what inspires us to what we do. Your feedback is deeply appreciated.

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