Re-authoring learning and development in a world of speed, profit and production

The Narrative Approach was founded on and grew from the construction of respectful practices with people in counseling and therapy. Created and documented by Michael White and David Epston more than 30 years ago, the Narrative practices and work were born out of a need to interact with therapy clients in a respectful and collaborative way.

The Narrative approach invites leaders and work-communities to become the authors of the many stories they are writing and living, not only as individuals and heads of departments but also as teams. These stories are powerful because they maintain, shape and speak about who we are, how we relate to others and who we can become as individuals and organisations.

What’s in a name?

The Narrative approach begins with the idea that a word opens a world. In the Hawaiian culture they say that when you name something, you breathe life into it. If we therefore think about the name, Learning and Development, what are we really talking about and breathing life into, what is the world we are opening and creating through these words?

Unpacking the problem-saturated stories within Leadership and Development

How we speak and the stories we tell about Learning and Development in organisations shape how we think about learning, development, the work-communities, leaders and our role in the organisation. Some of the stories we tell are problem saturated stories and others are starting to language the alternative futures that we imagine can be possible.

As a society we are sometimes enslaved and trapped by the problem stories that we tell ourselves and one another. Not only are we used to having these problem stories around, we also have a relationship with them that sets limits on what is possible for us and our organisations. Dominant problem stories in the Learning and Development environment might sound like:

  • The workforce do not take ownership of their development, they are so entitled, they think it is their right to be developed
  • Leaders are not really interested to spend money on learning and development as they do not see the real benefits to the bottom line
  • Meetings and deadlines are often considered to be more important than learning and development efforts and commitments
  • Learning and development has become part of the numbers game that must support transformation in organisations
  • Profit and production is more important than learning and development in organisations

The power of these dominant problem stories is that they hide their history, influence and impact on our lives and organisations as we shrug our shoulders and tell our colleagues, “This is just the way it is.”  This commitment to the way things are and our ignorance of the powerful effects of these stories are causing so much hopelessness and yet we have grown accustomed to this way of being.

These examples of problem-saturated stories mentioned above, are sustained and supported by the taken-for-granted ideas and beliefs of the business perspective that often sound like:

  • Human beings are cogs in the big machine of the business world that should only be producers of goods, product and profit
  • We have to pursue profit at the lowest possible cost, while we still can because the market is so unpredictable
  • We must push productivity to benefit from the market at all costs and as soon as possible.
  • Efficiency requires speed that has no time for rest and pause and definitely no time for learning and development
  • Because we cannot employ enough people (the story of profit), we must ensure that those we have are performing at their best, sometimes at a level and pace that is humanly impossible to sustain.

Taken-for-granted beliefs and ideas are very powerful because they are often told and sold as “the way things are” by people in powerful positions in the business world such as shareholders, market analysts, leaders, CEOs, managers, supervisors, economists and the media.

The Narrative work creates distance from these dominant problem-saturated narratives as we give the problem narrative a name. We explore the history of the story as well as how we influence and are influenced by the narrative. We examine how the taken-for-granted ideas and beliefs in a particular society inform and sustain the problem narrative. Then individuals and organisations are invited to choose again what kind of relationship they want to have with the problem stories of Learning and Development.

How to re-author the way the organisation and its leaders shape and participate in Learning and Development

The Narrative work helps us realise how weary we have become of these problem-saturated stories. It asks profound questions about them. These questions give us a peek into a possible future that we never thought likely, and a whole new dance with the story takes its first step into becoming.

The work continually looks for moments and relationships in our history where that problem narrative was not true, was not the whole truth or was not present. Those different moments and relationships become the seeds for exploring the alternative narrative. We then give this alternative narrative a name. We further explore the ideas, beliefs, skills, gifts and community that can support this alternative narrative.

The Narrative approach invites us as leaders and work-communities into the possibility of re-authoring our lives and organisational stories in ways that speak to and of our humanity. Setting ourselves up as authors goes beyond merely thinking in a new way about our lives; it invites us to take up the pen or the brush and start writing or painting our lives and organisations in preferred ways of being in this world.

The dominant problem-saturated stories in the Learning and Development world, does not have the final say or only say, as a community of workers and leaders are challenging, resisting and living into alternative preferred ways of being. These stories may be thinly described and are often told as the exception, but communities of workers along with chief learning officers, talent directors and human resources directors are daring to challenge these thin stories about profit, product, speed and dehumanisation.

The alternative preferred stories might be called Human Relatedness, Inclusiveness, Abundance of Talent or Learning and Development is my Responsibility. Within this multiplicity of alternative narratives organisations are informed by the gifts, histories and possibilities that speak of a world where there is learning and development that participate in the possibilities for a different future. What we will call these emerging narratives remain to be seen, but the alternative preferred narrative is being documented, told and re-told as we speak.

Re-authoring Learning and Development in a world of speed, profit and production invites human beings into the possibility of re-authoring and rewriting our lives, our team and our organisational stories, and as we do, the world as we know it transforms one narrative at a time!

Invite practices that will co-create humane workspaces where we attract, develop and engage all who enter and choose to stay chief learning officers, talent directors and human resources directors are in the privileged position to journey with a beautiful diverse work-community in the South African context. In this rich journey Narrative practices invite work-communities and leaders to:

  • re-humanise the workspace through the telling, re-telling and witnessing of the multiple stories of our lived experiences – stories we have interpreted and stories we are knowledgeable about (in this case focusing on L & D)
  • re-name our world by giving our own language in the titles for our individual and organisational narratives
  • re-authorise our work-lives by being aware of, challenging and resisting the taken-for-granted beliefs and ideas of people we authorise and hand the pen over to, in the writing of our lives
  • re-dream a life, work, world and future through alternative narratives as we live into a different direction beyond what we have taken for granted
  • re-communalise a world trapped in individualism and isolation, by allowing a community of co-journeyers to walk alongside
  • re-gift our world by receiving and giving gifts abundantly, as we allow a community of co-journeyers to see and name what we are not always able to.

The Narrative work’s invitations and portals to transformation are co-constructed in language, relationships, community and narrative. These co-constructions are created from and hosted in a warm, grace-filled, non-judgmental space, where work-communities and leaders are listened to and can speak freely from their storied knowledges and gifts.

In listening fully, leaders and work-communities are “seen into becoming”, as the transformation of the dominant problem-saturated stories move into alternative narratives that reconstruct our identities, meanings, agency, relationships and our worlds. This seeing in the listening brings an openness to relationships and the world that would previously never have been considered. These alternative relationships, possibilities and futures are indeed created from participants’ deep connections to one another and to all things.

The Narrative work provides the non-threatening lens, language, approach and structure for transformation that propel us into creating a Learning and Development workspace that invites our humanity, gifts and communal connectedness with one another as part of our conversation. As we step into these portals of transformation in our co-constructing journeys, we are inviting whoever is in the room to be transformed as we transform our world together.


These ideas have been adapted from Chené Swart’s book: Re-authoring the World: The Narrative Lens and Practices for Organisations, Communities and Individuals.

Chené Swart will be speaking at the Chief and Learning Officer’s Conference from the 9th to 11th of October 2013 at the Fairway Hotel and Golf Resort, Randpark. To learn more about this event: Click here now.


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