Why we used Strategic Narrative Embodiment (SNE) at the Summit and what it did, and did not, deliver

Co-author: Petro Janse Van Vuuren

During our planning for the 2016 Southern African Knowledge Management Summit (2016SAKMS) we pondered the current state and needs of the KM network in South Africa. Based on Etienne Wenger’s [1] stages of community development it seemed to us that the current KM network in South Africa represented a potential community, with a desire to coalesce towards community. It was this move to a next stage in the lifecycle of  a community that we wanted to stimulate.  According to Wenger & Snyder (2002)[2]  the emergence of the strategic purpose or intent for the community is a core construct in this shift from a potential community to a coalescing stage. The structure, role and activities of the community-to-be need to fit and adapt with this strategic purpose.

The discovery of strategic intent or purpose is supported and informed by the finding and recognition of common ground and engaging issues on a communal level. There must be a sense of the development of a shared domain together with the redirection of attention towards seeing own issues as a communal fodder. People also need to see how their passions and desire for community can translate into something useful. They find energy for coalescence around recognising similar problems, passions, and contributions.

These typical aspects of a potential community informed the design for the Summit.

Strategic Narrative Embodiment (SNE) presented an interesting opportunity as methodology and conversation partner for our summit design. Not only is it a methodology designed for organisation (and per implication community) development, but it would also be fresh and innovative. We were intrigued by the embodiment component especially since the possibility of accessing tacit knowledge located in the body is a hot emergent topic in the KM space. Initial conversations made us curious about:

  • What knowledge in and about our network can such a process access and externalise?
  • How can it enable the network to shift from potential community to coalescence towards community?
  • What can it tell us about emergent narratives in the KM network?
  • What level of engagement can it elicit from delegates?
  • How can it facilitate the interplay between individual and collective learning?

What is SNE and how was it used at 2016SAKMS?

Strategic Narrative Embodiment (SNE) is an applied theatre methodology that has been developed for application in leadership and organisation development contexts.

SNE translates the transformational effect, story shaping, and ensemble skills of stage performance into the language of work performance. It functions particularly well as a methodology for mindfulness training, development of change agility, team and community development, innovation, leadership development, strategic planning and relationship selling.

SNE is based on a model developed in Petro Janse van Vuuren’s Ph.D. in 2008 and has, since then, been influenced by trends in organisational and leadership development. These trends include mindfulness and neuroscience, systems thinking and systems coaching, narrative coaching, sense-making, gamification, and applied improvisation.Click here to read more on the foundations of the model.

The Strategic Narrative Embodiment (SNE) model consists of three aspects: strategic intent, Narrative design and embodied participation.

SNE is designed to identify stories that are no longer helpful to the individual or the collective, and to understand its embodied effects, generate workable alternatives and implement these in the world of work. Along the way it teaches communication skills, relationship building skills, presentation skills and inspires people to change for the good of the organisation and the world.

SNE functions on two levels, both of which were present in our summit process: design and technique. On the level of design, SNE uses a narrative arc to shape the flow of an engagement such as the summit.


We employed the arc  as follows:

Many techniques characteristic of SNE is mentioned in the second column above: the use of metaphor, community storytelling and sharing of insights, maximum interaction and participation, the use of post-it notes and community involvement in patterning and sense-making, and the employment of physical room set-up to enable certain kinds of interaction (e.g. the Café setup).

These are not unique to SNE, though they contribute to its effectiveness. The uniqueness of SNE is in the use of embodiment in the following forms:

  1. Delegate participation in exercises that access the DEC (direct experience circuitry) of the brain to momentarily bypass the NC (narrative circuitry). The value of this is to allow delegates to ‘park’ existing dominant stories about KM in SA and experiment with other perspectives.
  2. Delegates sharing stories and translating stories into movement vocabulary. This process accesses knowledge about the stories that do not often receive attention and so-doing allow possible insight and breakthrough. It also has a community building effect as it makes delegates equal to each other and adds a level of human vulnerability.
  3. Actors are employed to act as mirrors for the stories of the community. Through projection, a distance is created between the story and its proponent allowing for the possibility of experimentation. This process lets delegates try out future scenarios, test ideas, and grapple with relationships, actions and the dynamics of the system represented by the forces in the story.
  4. Delegates are invited to change the motivations and the purpose of characters in the story presenting a clear picture of the perspectives and beliefs present in the KM network. The same process also begins to alter these perceptions and beliefs based on its interaction with other perceptions in the externalised system. This process is organic and dynamic with little interference from a facilitator; it comes from the group and returns to the group to impact understanding, insight and action.

What the SNE methodology did and did not deliver

  1. SNE is designed for accurate representation of diverse voices, not for the forging of consensus.
  2. It strives to show the dynamics of a system of relationships (in this case the KM network and its narratives) to itself with minimum interference from the dominant voices of facilitators.
  3. It works with the dynamic between carefully considered responses and spontaneous reactions – each of which brings a different kind of knowledge to the fore.
  4. It stimulates emergence and works with what is present, rather than with what is hoped for and desired.

All of the above means that the experience can be somewhat messy, slightly alienating and potentially confusing or frustrating to participants. For this reason, great care is taken to hold the facilitation, explain the processes and allow for descent.  However, the benefits outweigh the costs in our experience for the following reasons:

  1. When building community, it is of great importance to not silence divergent voices in favour of well formed and packaged opinions that invite consensus.
  2. While reflection is important for sense-making, it usually draws on the NC of the brain that likes things to fit into predetermined categories. This process therefore must be disrupted through spontaneous response and interaction that could point to alternative insights that may be missed if never considered.
  3. As a KM community, accuracy of what is going on is more important than feeling good about it. The KM professional has to be able to hold messiness and divergent pieces of data without forcing tidiness especially when companies and organisations are in flux.
  4. The value of identifying emergent narratives, rather than confirming dominant narratives is in the possibility of these narratives to shift the KM profession towards its desired place in the world of work.

Of course you are now wondering what these emergent narratives are and what we have learned from the summit experience. We are in the process of perusing all data and drawing conclusions. Within the next month or so we will arrange interviews with some of the delegates who gave us permission to do so. Then we will write it all up and present it back to you on this website and in the form of a published article. Watch this space for updates.

[1]Wenger, E., n.d. Communities of practice: development stages. [Online] Available at:http://partnership.esflive.eu/files/CoP_development_stages.pdf.[Accessed February 2016].

[2]Cultivating communities of practice: a guide to managing knowledge. By Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William Snyder, Harvard Business School Press, 2002.

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