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definition - Organization_story

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Organization story

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Organizational story or 'living story' is one of several elements of storytelling, including narratives and antenarrative. Organization stories are the texts, spoken or written, as well as visual (architecture or storyboards) that usually involve a plot of different interconnected events, binding different characters together about an organization.

Narratives may be based on actual events or may involve fantastic characters and incidents. Narratives in organizations may appear in many forms, including official and unofficial), advertisements, brochures, reports, and so forth, yet they do not exhaust the domain of organization. Most people would look at stories as narratives, although the precise relation between story and narrative is disputed. What is not disputed is:

  1. that living stories are often charged with emotion and meaning,
  2. that narratives have a 'plastic' relation with literal reality, and
  3. that narratives are monological (Bakhtin, 1973);
  4. that narratives tend to become petrified over time (Czarniawska, 2004).

Most agree that living stories, narratives, and antenarratives are important sensemaking currencies of organizations. Boje (1991: 106), for example, says, "storytelling is the preferred sensemaking currency of organizations." In the past fifteen years, interest in organizational storytelling has increased considerably. In particular, there has been a recognition that storytelling is an interplay of narratives (backward-looking sensemaking), living stories (here-and-now sensemaking), and antenarratives (forward-looking sensemaking):

Narratives since Aristotle's (350 BCE, 1450b: 25) Poetics have been inscribed with the coherence of beginning, middle, and end:

  1. narratives are oftentimes backward-looking retrospective sensemaking (Weick, 1995);
  2. narratives are said to have a profound effect on audiences when they have a simple beginning, middle, end emplotment, and appeal to audience solidarity.
  3. leaders narratives rely crucially on narrative devices: allegories, metaphors, fabula, and Sjuzhet.

Living stories are without beginning or end, telling in the middle, referring to other living stories:

  1. living stories are in the now, emerging in the present, in what Bakhtin (1993) calls in the moment of being;
  2. living stories can engage a reflexive process important to learning (Tyler & Rosen, 2008)
  3. living stories are dialogical to a web of other living stories;
  4. a great deal of living stories are told in and about organizations that do not fit the officially prescribed narrative (Boje, 1995);
  5. many of these living stories are important in disseminating knowledge and enhancing emergent organizational learning;
  6. we can learn a lot about an organization by listening carefully to the living stories told by its members without fitting them into a linear narrative order;
  7. living stories can instigate processes of social and organizational change, for the better or for the worse, because they are part of a web of relationships that is emerging and unfolding;
  8. leadership involves the management of meaning and emotions.

Antenarrative means before-narrative and a bet (ante) that somewhat fragmented storytelling can shape the future:

  1. antenarrative are forward-looking prospective sensemaking;
  2. antenarratives is an organization's storytelling about the future.
  3. antenarratives can be Linear plots extending a plot-line into the future, Cyclical, or some sort of [Rhizome].

This current interest in organizational storytelling is part of a broader tendency of narrativization of organizational theory, an emphasis on language, metaphors, talk, living stories, narratives, and antenarratives not as parts of a superstructure erected on top of the material realities of organizations, such as structure, power, technology and so forth, but rather as parts of the very essence of organizational sensemaking. This has challenged standard views of organizations built around the themes of bureaucracy, hierarchy and authority, and emphasizes, if not the primacy, at least the relative autonomy of the symbolic dimension. This is itself part of the broader linguistic turn in the social and human sciences – a tendency to view many social and psychological phenomena as constituted through language, sustained through language and challenged through language.

There are different approaches in the study of organizational living stories, narratives, and antenarratives. At the most daring and extreme, some have argued that organizations are themselves discursive effects, sub-narratives within the grand narrative of modernity (e.g. Czarniawska (1997) and Grant (1998)). From this perspective, organizations share the fate of other effects of modernity, such as the sovereign self, the body or indeed 'facts', becoming discursive constructions. Other theorists have looked at narratives as constitutive of organizations but not as fully constituting them. From this perspective,

"buildings are built, products are manufactured, services are rendered beyond (and because of) all this organizational talk. Thus discourse and talk are central to organization and organizing ... but so is non-discursive action" (Hardy, Lawrence, and Phillips 1998, p. 63).

Stories are frequently used interchangeably with narratives, narratives with texts and texts with discourse. In particular, there has been a tendency among numerous theorists (following the practice of journalists) to stretch the idea of 'story' so that it encompasses virtually any aspect of sensical discourse. "What is the story?" is seen as an invitation to offer any explanation. Any discursive device that generates and sustains meaning and any meaningful text is then seen as a story (Boje 1991). Such an approach unfortunately obliterates some of the unique qualities of stories and narratives that make them vivid and powerful but also fragile sense-making devices. Some authors have expressed reservations at such pan-narrativist views, arguing that not all texts are narratives and not all narratives are stories. Narratives can then be seen as particular types of text and stories as particular types of narrative. Unlike definitions, labels, lists, recipes and other texts, stories involve temporal chains of inter-related events or actions, undertaken by characters (Gabriel 2000). They are not mere snapshot photographic images, but require sequencing and plots (Czarniawska 1997; Czarniawska 1999; Polkinghorne 1988). Narratives may differ in their relation to actual events, from fairly accurate accounts to totally fantastic ones. One of their vital qualities is that precision is often sacrificed in the interest of effect, in what is known as ‘poetic licence’. Good narratives and, in particular, good stories are memorable, pithy and full of meaning, stimulating emotion and fantasy. This is what makes them quite powerful devices in management of meaning and emotion and the diffusion of knowledge.

It is now generally appreciated that much knowledge in organizations does not assume the form of logico-scientific generalizations, theories and formulas, but has a narrative character – it amounts to a large reservoir of stories, tales, recipes and experiences (Orr 1996) that are traded in what are often seen as communities of practice. This is highly specific, informal knowledge that complements and qualifies ‘information’ available through official channels. Within different organizations numerous mutually reinforcing narratives, story-lines and other texts may coalesce in particular discourses which express the interests and concerns of specific groups. Thus, for instance, within the same organization a managerial discourse (emphasising efficiency, quality and customer service) may coexist with other discourses, such as a cynical discourse (made up of disruptive or recalcitrant stories), a nostalgic discourse (made of or idealized stories from the past) and a professional discourse (extolling professional independence). Boje (2001) refers to the space where stories may emerge from discourses as ante-narrative – the existence of a fecund narrative space and the willingness of individuals to take a bet (an ‘ante’) that what they say, individually or in groups, will shape up into meaningful stories. For this reason, Boje insists that most organizational stories are co-created by many participants as well as having many different meanings (1995).

Stories then can be seen as representing facts-as-experience rather than facts-as-information (Gabriel 1991). They are capable of rousing and communicating emotion or charging events with symbolic significance and of framing, distorting and altering aspects of events in the interest of delivering a ‘telling narrative’. The truth of the story is then not to be judged by its accuracy (the way that the truth of information may be judged) but by its capacity to express of a compelling set of meanings. Storytellers are bonded with their audiences with what Gabriel (2004) calls a ‘narrative contract’ (also known in the literary field as Philippe Lejeune[1][2]'s pioneering concept of 'autobiographical pact', 1975) – a deal under which the audience grants poetic licence to the storyteller in return for a meaningful narrative . All the same, storytellers can violate this narrative contract by insisting that they personally experienced events which later turn out to have been fictitious or by abusing the gullibility of their audience to deliver ‘spin’, disinformation and lies.

Increasingly storytelling is an important part of organizational research. Even if not literally true or accurate, living stories in organizations express emotional and symbolic realities revealing the participants deeper feelings towards each other, the leadership or the organizational as a whole. The interplay of living story with narrative petrification and antenarrative bets on future is being worked out in current research. Storytelling is rhetoris. In this sense, they conform with Aristotle’s (1991) conception that poetry can reveal deeper truths that narrative-history (which remains tied to ‘facts’) is unable to reach.


  • Aristotle (written 350 BCE). E.g. (1954) translation Aristotle: Rhetoric and Poetics. Intro by Friedrich Solmsen; Rhetoric translated by W. Rhys Roberts; Poetics translated by Ingram Bywater. NY: The Modern Library (Random House). Poetics was written 350 BCE.
  • Aristotle. 1991. The Rhetoric, Edited by H. C. Lawson-Tancred. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Bakhtin, M. 1973. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Trans. R. W. Rotsel, Ann Arbor: Ardis
  • Bakhtin, M. M. 1993. Toward a Philosophy of the Act. Translation and Notes by Vadim Liapunov. Edited by Michael Holquist & Vadim Liapunov. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. From Bakhtin’s early 1920s notebooks. 1993 is First English printing.
  • Boje, D. M. 1991. "The storytelling organization: A study of story performance in an office-supply firm." Administrative Science Quarterly 36.
    • —. 1995. "Stories of the storytelling organization: A postmodern analysis of Disney as 'Tamara Land'." Academy of Management Review 38:997-1035.
    • —. 2001. Narrative methods for organizational and communication research. London: Sage.
  • Czarniawska, Barbara. 1997. Narrating the organization: Dramas of institutional identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
    • —. 1999. Writing management: Organization theory as a literary genre. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • — . 2004. Narratives in Social Science Research. London: Sage.
  • Gabriel, Yiannis. 1991. "Turning facts into stories and stories into facts: A hermeneutic exploration of organizational folklore." Human Relations 44:857-875.
    • —. 2000. Storytelling in organizations: Facts, fictions, fantasies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • —. 2004. "The narrative veil: Truth and untruths in storytelling." Pp. 17-31 in Myths, Stories and Organizations: Premodern narratives for our times, edited by Y. Gabriel. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Grant, David, Tom Keenoy, and Cliff Oswick. 1998. "Discourse and organizations." London: Sage.
  • Hardy, Cynthia, Thomas B. Lawrence, and Nelson Phillips. 1998. "Talk and action: Conversations and narrative in interorganizational collaboration." Pp. 65-83 in Discourse and Organization, edited by D. Grant, T. Keenoy, and C. Oswick. London: Sage.
  • Lejeune, Philippe 1975. Le Pacte autobiographique, Paris: Éditions du Seuil.
  • Orr, Julian E. 1996. Talking about machines: An ethnography of a modern job. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press/Cornell.
  • Polkinghorne, D. E. 1988. Narrative knowing and the human sciences. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Tyler, Jo. A.; Rosen, Gail. 2008. "The Story Holds Its Heart: Living Story Expression in Reflexive Storytelling." Storytelling, Self, Society, Volume 4, Issue 2, pages 102 - 121.

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