Narratives people live by

Today in church the preacher’s approach was one we have come to expect in terms of structure, including prayers, hymns, bible readings, sermon and prayers of intercession. Also included were the usual biographical introduction and several personal narratives as illustrations. After one hour we knew his personal circumstances (married), details about his grandchildren and the stages they were at in school, his personal work history (ex-lecturer in science) and how many aspirin tablets you could get out of a large bag of aspirin (50,000). He also analysed two bible readings and linked them to the narratives as he went along. Impressive.

So what were his talents? In knowledge terms he knew many scientific facts, had a good memory for biblical references, narrative capability and presentational capability (although his slight nervousness reduced any flair or charisma there might have been there).

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This Sunday in church the preacher drew upon many personal narratives to link to the biblical meta-narratives we all knew. By the end of the one hour-long service, through his interspersions of personal stories and narratives, we knew his personal details (married, retired science lecturer, grandfather and his sadness not to have seen his one child actually come into tne world) and how many aspirin tablets you could make out of a large bag of aspirin chemical materials (50,000).

For organisational researchers, narrative analysis is well established within studies of organisational life. A church can be taken to be an organisation, and their preachers are their ‘staff’ for whom storytelling is integral to their ‘work’. The work of scholars such as Boje, (2001), Gabriel (2000) and Rhodes and Brown (2005) are useful here. Narrative and storytelling are useful tools for human interaction (Herrmann, 2011), they have been used to examine shared sense making in both classic cases (Orr’, 1996, 2006) and contemporary studies, such as ‘Picture Perfect? Exploring the use of smartphone photography in a distributed work practice Katrina Pritchard and Gillian Symon in Management Learning (published online 20 May 2013 DOI: 10.1177/1350507613486424).

Another aspect of the preacher’s personal narrative was the surprise story about his angst at missing the birth of his child.  Critical life events can involve a reframing of one’s very value system – what is important in our lives.  In organisational life, crucial events call for managers to learn what has been situated in practice, maybe for some time, and taken for granted by the person and their colleagues in the organisation. We need to be aware that these crucial events offer, often triggered by life-changing situations/conditions, offer valuable experiential learning (Kolb, 1984 is an oft-cited scholar here) or, as other put it, situated learning, which emphasises learning within the work context.

Situated learning claims that our understanding of learning can’t be isolated from the social context where organisational practice is enacted but we can also argue that learning can’t be isolated from individual’s life condition where reframing is often required.