Capturing oral histories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —January 1, 2005
Filed in Business storytelling

There is a growing interest in capturing employees stories using video or audio. Experienced employees are walking out the door and taking their knowledge with them, leaving little behind. Senior managers are rightfully concerned; especially in government. Understanding why policies are they way they are and knowing what has been tried and what has failed is vitally important.

The oral history tradition will have a significant impact on how organisations tackle collecting these experiences. An example in the news at the moment is the mammoth oral history project underway by the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. Their subject is Senator Edward Kennedy. Oral history techniques are well document and appear ideally suited to this task of capturing employee experience. But there is a danger to be aware of.

It appears that the oral history field is heavily influenced by journalism despite oral history practitioners drawing a distinction between the purpose of a journalist–getting a good story–and an oral historian–capturing information for historical interpretation. For example, whenever the topic of interviewing is mentioned, tremendous emphasis is placed on the interviewer preparing for the interview so that they might develop and ask the right questions. On this topic the Cynefin narrative techniques take a slight different approach.

Firstly the interviewer (we would call them a facilitator) would only make a cursory effort to familiarize themselves with the subject because we are concerned that the facilitator might quickly develop a view of the stories they would like to hear and then ask questions which don’t prompt what is meaningful and important to the subject. So the question is, how does the facilitator jog the memory of the subject without predetermining the outcome? We do this by conducting the interview with a group of peers. The conversation that ensues helps the group remember important events, insights and experiences they have had which can then be recorded.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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