Shell’s blue book – a fine example of storytelling

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —March 22, 2007
Filed in Anecdotes, Collaboration

In 2001 Shell collected a bunch of stories and put them together in a booklet now know as the Blue Book, but with the official title of Stories from the Edge: Managing Knowledge through New Ways of Working within Shell’s Exploration and Production Business. It’s a landmark publication because it shows that a company in a hard-nosed industry like oil exploration and production recognises the value of storytelling and are getting benefits from its application.

The booklet (87 pages) is in four parts:

  • Global Networks
  • Global Consultancy
  • Centres of Excellence
  • Distributed Teams

Many of the stories tell how the organisation has saved money  by sharing knowledge. Others are about how new tools and techniques have been used. In each case the stories are in the language of the Shell employees. Here’s an example:

Pecten Cameroon’s research revealed that other operators had achieved production gains by injecting demulsifier downhole in gas lifted wells, reducing viscosity in the production string and thereby increasing production. After a trial evaluation of their own, the company obtained a gain of 500 barrels per day or $5 million per annum. The approach is being extended to 17 other wells with prospective gains of $9 million per year.

What I find most interesting about the Blue Book is how the authors recognised that collecting and sharing stories of success is a powerful way to garner resources for things like communities of practice, which are notoriously difficult to develop a business case for. In fact, any learning initiative is difficult to justify in a strictly analytical way (to see why have a look at this post I wrote a while back-Learning initiatives need stories not measurement).

BHP Billiton has taken a similar approach with their communities of practice (also called Networks). Check out their Ok Tedi story.

Throughout the Blue Book are quotes from Dave Snowden’s early papers on narrative techniques for knowledge management. I hadn’t heard about any work Dave had done with Shell so it was a welcomed surprise.

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:


  1. Andy Boyd says:

    Nice to see you like the book we published it is still generating interest all these years later which is always pleasing, just for clarity Dave Snowdon did not work with us (we asked him if we could quote him and he kindly agreed) we did work with The Fifth Business doing this work which was a delight
    p.s I think we met at the KM europe fringe event in Amsterdam did we not?
    Andy Boyd
    Knowledge Manager
    Royal Dutch Shell

  2. Oops, just ran into this recently… Thanks for the pointer. This is interesting. I worked with Shell and Andy, but didn’t know of this interesting initiative.
    It would be interesting to hear what this book led to. To new KM projects, more funding for KM initiatives, a new book with stories? Andy could tell us more! But what’s your experience, Shawn? What does this generally lead to?

  3. I’m glad you found the link Samuel. I’m not sure what happened at Shell but the guys at Rio Tinto did a similar booklet called Stories at the Coalface. It has had a tremendous impact for leaders continued support of their CoP initiatives, helped new community members get connected and see the value of being involved and shown customers and partners that Rio Tinto takes learning seriously.

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