Corporate Folklore | 2037


Strange idiosyncratic weirdness in organisations, database admins are worse than 40k Techpriests, Corporate Folklore, Narrative Strategy, FML Numbers, and more.

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Corporate Folklore

Indie consultant and the co-creator of the quotebacks bookmarklet Tom Critchlow posted on twitter yesterday that he’s thinking of going ‘all-in on narrative strategy’ as the frame for his work in 2021.

He screenshotted his excellent essay Narrative Strategy. Where he points out that only 30% of employees can articulate a company’s strategy. This results in a widening gap between the perspective an executive team has Vs the perspective that line employees have with regard to a company’s strategy or direction.

He goes on to say that few indie consultants that he knows mix editorial work with narrative strategy. I do. I’ve had folks write short sci-fi like vignettes about what the company would be like in 5 years time. With that vision placed at the top of the presentations and its supporting documents etc.

Anyhoos. In 2014 I didn’t go back into academia and narrowly avoided a massive life mistake. I wanted to study Corporate Folklore. 

Let me explain: 

If you have ever worked in a large organisation. Every single department deals with strange idiosyncratic weirdness as part of it’s day to day function. Some teams handle PID codes, others type in BINC numbers. Or maybe you work in a helpdesk and unironically submit FML numbers to the CRM and no one knows why or how they got their name.

Usually these oddities occur because at some point in the past the team did something else. Then at some other point the team was merged with another team and the meaning of FML was lost like tears in rain.

Exacerbated by database admins being worse than 40k Tech-Priests. Nothing can be changed nor will it ever change. The schema is sacred. The database remembers as a fixed reality. Tables of information cannot and should not be changed to reflect the real world. So here we all are inputting FML numbers at our shitty jobs. 

Consultants and especially Industrial Psychologists like to measure corporate values, and culture fit. You profile employees against corporate values with questionnaires and map the outputs in a workshop to see the difference or drift. But I honestly don’t think that these tools are the best tools for the job to peer into the heart of a company’s culture. Or understand how well change and strategy is being implemented and adopted.

It literally must come as a surprise to no one that UK banks started hiring for values fit in the aftermath of the financial crash. Their organisations were riddled with remorseless psychopaths prone to taking risks. Anyways.

There are so many more disciplines. Rarely directed towards understanding organisations from an alternate point of view. You occasionally find anthropologists working in house, at huge multinational companies. Understanding how systems and corporate culture intersects with the local environment etc.

What James C Scott would say:

We must never assume that local practice conforms with state theory

James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed
Episode 1933 – Organisational Memory

I have a rant about occupational psychology in this regard but I’ll spare you and continue. 

I already explained my breakdown of organisational memory in Episode 1933. So will assume some working knowledge: The Aforementioned Database memory. Plus: Institutional, Desk, Draw, and Working memory.

Corporate folklore explores the last two one. Draw Memory and Working Memory.

Organisations are obsessed with ever present of desk memory. But corporate folklore takes a longer narrative approach when thinking about the health of an institution’s culture and narrative strategy. IE how much has a recent employee picked up about the history of their team/departments from colleagues?

I once moved into a new tech consulting role and found the entire bottom draw of my desk full of manuals to an obscure optical scanner and esoteric software. I was told β€˜If our supplier in Africa has any issues you’re now the point of contact as it’s the only complete set of manuals we have’. β€˜It’s your draw so you’re now the expert.’ This was news to me I can tell you. But now I knew that my company used to sell software that connected to optical scanners in the early Noughties. This was literal draw memory.

Corporate Folkloristics is a process of going into a company and simply speaking to members of the organisation. Not about asking them to fill in any forms, or semantic analysis on open text boxes in structured forms. Just asking people to tell you a tale.

β€œTell me what you know about the story of your department and the company”

  • What can they tell you about the history of their team or their department?
  • Do they know that their team once merged with another to form the department they are working in now?
  • Do they know how they ran the company before the current CEO?
  • What’s different now?
  • What have they picked up from old timers?

Companies like to think they run in the ever present of desk memory. This results in constant change in large organisations and the fatigue it generates is well documented. Sometimes individuals in teams can go through 5-6 years of constant change and shifting goals. It’s tiring. Individuals need and require context and a certain β€˜situatedness’ to feel comfortable. The best way to go about building a shared context is to first find out how much β€˜narrative’ is present within an organisation and what is its depth. 

Do companies with healthy oral cultures provide better context to individuals involved in its day to day activities?
Or do companies with high turnover and attrition to have a weak sense of its history, strategy and mission?

The script above is the original script I wrote for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in audio due to time constraints.

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2 responses to “Corporate Folklore | 2037”

  1. […] ago on 301 I talked about how narrowly I avoided doing a Phd in corporate folklore. I wanted to use ethnographic methods to explore the depth and breadth of an organisation’s […]

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