Social Networks : Storytelling Organizations

David M. Boje is a professor of management at New Mexico State University. He has published numerous articles in Management Communication Quarterly, Administrative Science Quarterly, Leadership Quarterly, Academy of Management Journal & other top management journals.

He is President of Standing Conference for Management and Organization Inquiry  David is past editor of the Journal of Organizational Change Management. More recently, he is founding editor of Tamara: The Journal of Critical Postmodern Organization Science

David can be contacted by e-mail

June 29, 1999, revised Nov 12 2003

I want to introduce you to the game playing among storytelling organizations (see Figure One below). The idea is to theorize organizations as storytelling systems where stories are the currency of exchange within and between them.  
Storytelling organization writers, theorize people as collectively storying and then restorying their past, present, and future existence. They come at the topic from a variety of philosophical positions. Here, we will mention that Mary Boyce’s (1995) work on storytelling organization work is based in social construction philosophy, Czarniawska’s (1997) Narrating Organization bridges social construction with a Burkean scene-act ratio analysis, while my own storytelling organization work is based more in critical postmodern philosophy. It began as a mix of folklore and social construction and moved to more poststructuralist, critical theory, and postmodern epistemologies (myth in Boje, Fedor & Rowland, 1982; folklore and social construction in Boje, 1991; critical postmodern in Boje 1994,1995, 1998 to g, 1999; hegemony of storytelling in Boje, Luhman & Baack, 1999). 
My interest in storytelling organizations grew out of a myth-making paper I did for Lou Pondy in 1976, that I redrafted with Fedor and Rowland (1982). The idea was that organizations are replete with competing ideologies and goals that result from the uncertainty pervading them. Myth making is an adaptive way groups in organizations sustain logics and shared meanings to make sense of events. Myths are ways to handle problematic aspects of modern organizations. Myths narrow the horizon in which organizational life is allowed to make sense. Myths collide and compete in the ongoing negotiation of power and privilege among groups attempting to determine the dominant myth-making systems. Myths create, maintain, and legitimate past, present, and future actions and consequences. Myths have live cycles of development, maturation, decline and reformulation. Such was the myth making organizations.  
In the 1990s, I refined a storytelling organization as "collective storytelling system in which the performance of stories is a key part of members’ sense-making and a means to allow the to supplement individual memories with institutional memory& quot; (1991: 106; 1995: 1000). It is the collective rehistoricizing (memory) of the institution, the ongoing (re)negotiation as the present is unfolded into the past (attention), and the (re)visioning (expecting) the future (Boje, 1994). Gephart (1991: 37 ) in a study of leader succession defines storytelling organization as "constructed in the above succession stories as a tool of program for making sense of events." Mary Boyce (1995) has done a study of storytelling organizations. Storytelling organizations struggle to get the stories of insiders and outsiders straight, to market firms like Disney to customers (guests), investors, vendors, and employees (cast members). By 1995, I had moved away form social construction in favor of more postmodern formulations of storytelling organizations.  
At one extreme, the storytelling organization can oppress by subordinating everyone and collapsing everything to one "grand narrative" or "grand story." At the other extreme, the storytelling organization can be a pluralistic construction of multiplicity of stories, storytellers, and story performance events that are like Tamara but are realized differently depending upon the stories in which one is participating (Boje, 1995: 1000). 
Research on storytelling organizations now ranges from Boje’s office supply (1991) and Disney (1995) studies, Boyce’s (1995) study of a non-profit organization, Kaye’s (1996) extension to OD, Gephart’s (1991) leader succession work, and Czarniawska’s (1997) Swedish public sector organizations.  

Disney Storytelling Organization and its Publics My study of Disney (1995) used deconstruction and postmodern theory to demythologize the official founding stories of Walt and the Magic Kingdom by juxtaposing counter-narratives. For example, placing Disney’s official story in juxtaposition to marginal or excluded stories of strikes, reprimands, and Tayloristic practices. The supplement narratives were not added to some "pure" original or founding narrative the counter-narratives occur red along side the official story.  

Storytelling Organization Consulting  A dear friend of mine, Michael Kaye worked with my myth and story writings and worked them into a successful consulting practice. "Stories can shape the culture of organizations. Through stories and myths, we can form images of the organization and judge whether it is healthy or ailing. They tell us about the people who are saving the organization and those who are bringing it down…myths support rituals, communicate values and help leaders envisage the future " (Kaye, 1996: 63).  

Mary Boyce (1995 "Collective centering and collective sense-making in the stories and storytelling of one organization." Organization Studies. 16 (1). 107-137) has done excellent review on storytelling organization theory from a social construction perspective. 

"If we are learning that all organizational members are meaning-makers and contribute to "storying" and the culture-creation process, this has direct implications for organizational story work. When doing storytelling work in an organization, one must carefully assess the culture being created and changed through-out the organization; identifying the various strains of the culture(s) being woven everyday and identifying how the creating and changing is occurring. Researchers must seek out the different meanings woven and held by different members and groups in the organization. Story and storytelling research could be making an intentional contribution to what is known about the creating and changing of organizational culture. Little of this work has been done to date in the story and storytelling research." 

Narrative Organization Czarniawska (1997: 29, 30) choose drama as her all encompassing metaphor, rather than my own preference for theatrics because of theater constructing a problematic notion of "authenticity" or a "true self" and the "static" concept of a "role." Czarniawska (1997: 6, 11, 18) narrative approach to organizations relies on structuralist work by Roland Barthes (structuralist analysis), Kenneth Burke (narrative theater metaphors) and Walter Fisher (narrative paradigm theory), Alasdair MacIntyre (moral philosophy), Paul Ricoeur (literary hermeneutics), Jerome Bruner (narrative and logo-scientific modes of knowing) and Donald Polinghorne (combining of hermeneutics and semiotics of how people narrate by putting events into a plot), etc.  

In Swedish organization-as-theater, managers are expected to integrate their character and role in terms of agency and purpose, and not to act as their own self-promoting agent. Leaders of modern organization-as-theater are expected to play the good guy in progressive (myth) scenes of material accumulation, achieving purpose in highly complex spectacles of production and consumption. The modern stage is set as progress or decline and the leader is expected to just play the prescribed role with "the consistency required between the stage, the actor, and the act" (Czarniawska, 1997: 35). 
Extending Storytelling Organization Theory to Multiple Interacting Organizations 
Multiple Storytelling Organization Research

Boje, Luhman and Baack (1999) did a study of the hegemonic aspects of interacting storytelling organizations. The perspective taken in the paper extends earlier work on the "storytelling organization" by looking at the encounters of QM, Choral Company, Academy, and JMI as four storytelling organizations that are co-negotiating, co-constructing, and co-shaping the "telling" of each others stories. Multiple and simultaneous storytellers and story-readers selected, transformed, and reformed stories in the storytelling organization.  
In 1998, I did a series of Nike and the activists articles (see dark side) to show the relationship between multiple storytelling organizations. Philip Knight’s Nike is a "storytelling organization" as are the web-bases activists’ storytelling organizations. The Nike storytelling organization constructs through storied sense making practices its very legitimacy to employ young, female Asian workers to accumulate billions in capital. But, activist entrepreneurs are also virtual storytelling organizations, using the Internet to assemble delegitimation stories to damage the integrity of Nike, crafting stories to purposely deconstruct the dominant ideology and institutional memory of Nike, who they frame as Wile Coyote. Activists also provoke print media coverage, letter writing campaigns, and annual worldwide boycotts of Nike products. Nike focuses on how well paid their employees are and how much better the working conditions are now than in the past.  
From a Marcuse perspective, to understand Nike we need to go beyond categorizing Nike as positive or negative, and trace the process by which Nike is transforming into something other than what we see here and now. What we see here and now is a Nike that is replete with contradiction; between espouse and actual conduct; between public relations smokescreens and workers' life space; between Phil Knights' billions and Lap Nguyen's meager wages. Nike is both itself and its opposite.  
My focus in this work has been to look at inter-relationships of multiple storytelling organizations. Figure One, for example, models the network of relationships among the four types of storytelling organizations (N, S, A, M) which are the focus of this study. Since I can not reproduce the figure on the web, you have to imagine storied communication relationships between these six STOs. There is a figure with (N-1) fifteen lines of relationship.  
My purpose is to trace the ways in which the network of multiple storytelling organizations (Nike, Media, Activists, Studiers), workers (domestic and Third World), and consumers (including stockholders and retailers) circulate and spin stories to influence one another. The six nodes combine four types of storytelling organizations (N, S, A, M) and two clusters (C, W) which behave similarly in terms of storytelling behavior. There are weak lines of little or no direct communication between Nike and the activists; they rely upon weak third party ties. Nike and the Activists both court the Media and the Studiers. There are also weak ties between workers, investors, and customers who rarely see one another, but rely upon the other storytellers in the network to keep them informed (i.e. M, N, S, and sometimes A).  

Figure One: Network of STOs (this is better drawn out as a set of circles with intersecting relationships, but I could not reporduce this on the web).

For example, C represents customers, stockholders, and independent retail outlets which receive stories but, as a rule do not originate stories (an exception is when activists organize consumers into protests which become media events). Consumers have weak ties to W and A. This network structure also involves processes. There are stockholders which both N and A want to attract to their point of view. 
One process I am exploring in Figure One is how stories are passed along relational ties as the spin changes depending upon the audience and the aspects of the story the teller elects to accent. For example, in the pathway (2, 14, 15) Nike can construct a press release to the media (M), which can be spun into a revised story told by activists (A) to studiers (S) who subscribe to a list serve. The activist tale can be combined with worker reports (W) and then released back to the media (M) and become part of news accounts which proceed along one or two way ties to consumers (12), academics (13), and Nike (2). 
Resistance occurs as counter stories and story spins are constructed and retold along alternate pathways to attempt to change the balance of power relationships. Nike, for example, has more power to construct stories of the worker that script worker behavior. W, however, can resist N by creating ties to A, S, and M because these stories, in turn affect C which can then affect N’s reputation and subsequent market share from C. The activists (A) seek to tell stories in ways that get picked up by S and M which can reach the media in order to create an impact upon C which will affect N’s power over W.  
The STO network is a dynamic system. For example, as a story is released by M or A, N reacts by contracting a counter-story from S, releasing a press release, or pumping up diversionary ad campaigns that can affect C. As N releases new press releases to the media, annual reports to stockholders, ad campaigns to customers, and consultant studies to the academy, the A and M report on N’s defensive posturing. N, in turn releases stories of A’s behavior in the overall system.  
Extending Storytelling Organization Research with Latour

Bruno Latour’s work speaks to the historical and political aspects of storytelling organizations (see Boje, 1994: 437-9). Stories have a disciplinary effect. 

Actors delegate to a script the ability to attribute roles and to delegate actions to them, although they remain free to modify the script, constantly monitor contradiction between the two opposite delegations and check the fulfilling of the script (Latour, 1993). 
Storytelling organizations dispatch performances that their actors and customers learn to unfold. Tellers and listeners learn to attribute their own roles to the reified story; the actors and the story performance; actors learn to modify the story to attend to changes in the performance of the discourse. I will liven it up a bit with some examples from Disney and Nike. 

  • Story-dispatch Stories dispatch actions to be played out in the roles of the performers of the storytelling organization. Those with power seek to make their story the official story that will dispatch others’ actions. Power in this network is defined here as the ability of a storyteller to get another to abide within and live out the storyteller’s plot. For example in my Disney study (1995), Walt was the "father" to his "boys" (his term for male animators, storymen, and gag writers and to his "girls" (his term for women doing the inking and more repetitive drawing work). Disney was "one big happy family." The family metaphor encouraged a paternalistic order, where boys were reprimanded or fired for cursing in front of the girls. This gave way to the play metaphor with employees as cast members and customers as guests. The French workers at EuroDisney met the "play-theater metaphors with cynicism and resistance. Disney is a play-metaphor, a "simulation" presented to the guest, but one that has become more real than its obliterated historical referents. Beneath the facade of Disney surrealism is the capitalist machine, the conveyors and people movers, the animation, the merchandisers, and the wardrobes.
  • Story-delegation Actors (are encouraged to) delegate to the (official) story plots their own ability to attribute their own roles. It is in this way that stories become a technology of discipline and control. Before workers were "cast members" in Disney Theater, and customers were "guests," there was a different theatrics. Many organizations are making "employees" "associates" or other story characters. For example, official Disney tales commodify not just Snow White and Mickey, but the stories of Walt, Miller and now Eisner have a dollar-image value. Actors are encouraged to celebrate the simulacra (reinvented image stories) over alternative interpretations.
  • Story-habits Habits of story performance range from hierarchical separation of who monitors and delegates to including a great diversity of views and voices, even resistant ones. At Disney the scripts and plots set in motion are ways that employees become "smiling robots" and "guests" are kept in Disney control. The "smile factory" manufactures "friendly, courteous, fun" on a rigid assembly line (Eisenberg & Goodall, 1993; Van Maanen, 1991).
    Story-monitoring Actors self-monitor (the internal gaze) and are monitored by others who are sensitized and socialized to contradictions between story-in-line and performances out-of-line with official story lines. There is story resistance. In the storytelling organization other local stories, views, and interpretations are perpetually deconstructing the official side of the story. The storytelling organization is busily repairing its "official" story with plot and character revision.
  • Story-passage points there are managerial, worker, and activist committees everywhere to decide if actions abide by the story, sort out alternative story interpretations, and take other hegemonic actions to make their story appear to be the common sense. They are the guardians of institutional memory and the official story and in the case of dissent or activist the counter-hegemonic story. The reality for Disney workers (cast members) is "smile or be fired". People are in fear of having the shortcoming made the subject of the inquisition. As Foucault points out, they begin to gaze their performance to avoid such penal interview situation. At Nike, story-passage points involve preparing for the October 18, 1997 (annual) boycott (Boje, 1998a). 
  • "During the weeks prior to the 18th [date for the worldwide boycott], Nike had public relations teams holding press conferences across the country, conference calls with college newspaper editors and with writers and editors for municipal newspapers, full-page ads in college newspapers, handed out "Informed Consumer Updates" at football games (this was confirmed by a highly-placed confidential source within Nike), ...[and] is especially concerned about students... protesting contracts between their universities' athletics departments and Nike [parentheses theirs, brackets mine]."
  • Storytelling Organizations recruit others to subscribe to their more valued stories (what Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, call faciality) and exclude those who do not believe. Various factions are at odds over story interpretations, and with shifts in contexts, the storywork is never done. The performance of stories is a key part of storytelling organization members’ on-going sense-making and a means to allow the to supplement individual memories with institutional memory. In the Disney storytelling organization, from a postmodern Baudrillard sense there is no longer any detectable difference between theater-play and work, story characters and workers, story scripts and job descriptions, guests and customers. The festive "image" of having fun is consumed through commodity purchases in a spectacle of modern production. My point is that the modern and postmodern discourses of Disney are intertextual, or just plain connected in the storywork of the storytelling organization. 

I hope this gives you some idea of the new developments in storytelling organization theory and some of the new research directions.  

Ó Copyright David Boje, 1999


Boje, D. M. 1991 "Organizations as Storytelling Networks: A study of story performance in an office-supply firm." Administrative Science Quarterly, 36, 106-126.

1995 "Stories of the storytelling organization: A postmodern analysis of Disney as Tamara-land." Academy of Management Journal. 38 (4), 997-1035. 
1998a Amos Tuck's Post-Sweat Nike Spin Pp 618-623. In Business Research Yearbook: Global Business Perspectives, Vol. V. Biberman, J . & Alkafarji, A (Eds.).  
1998b Wile Coyote Meets the Road Runner Paper presentation to the Sun Break Conference, Chaos and Complexity, chaired by Janice Bl ack, Las Cruces, NM, February at New Mexico State University.  
1999 Boje, D. M. Alternative Postmodern Spectacles: The Skeptical and Affirmative Postmodernist (Organization) Theory Debates. June 25, 1999. These remarks were prepared for the Business and Economics Society International 1999 Conference, Canary Islands/Spain, July 22-26, Melia Las Palmas Hotel. 
1998d A Wicked Introduction to the Unbroken Circle Conference: International Business & Ecology. P. v-xiii. In Internationa l Business and Ecology Research Yearbook.  
1998e How Critical Theory and Critical Pedagogy can Unmask Nike's Labor Practices presented to the Critical Theory pre-conference of the Academy of Management meetings, San Diego, CA, August 8.  
1998f Nike, Greek Goddess of Victory or Cruelty? Women's Stories of Asian Factory Life Published (October) in Journal of Organi zational Change Management. Vol 11(6):461-480. . Also a book chapter for Usha C.V. Haley (ed.) in Perspectives on Asian Management.  
1998g. The Swoosh Goddess is a Vampire: Nike's Environmental Accounting Storytelling. Pp. 23-32. In International Business and Ecology Research Yearbook. IABD Publication. 
1999 New Is Nike Roadrunner or Wile E. Coyote? A Postmodern Organization Analysis of Double Logic, published in Journal of Busi ness & Entrepreneurship. Special Issue (March, Vol II) 77-109.. This is an analysis of the relationship between Nike activists and Nike. This is a pre-publication draft.  
Boje, David, Donald B. Fedor, and Kendrith M. Rowland.  1982 "Myth making: A qualitative step in OD interventions". Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, vol. 18: 17-28. 
Boje, D.M., Luhman, J. & Baack, D. 1999 "Hegemonic stories and encounters between storytelling organizations." Journal of Management Inquiry, 8(4): 340-360. 

Boyce, M. 1995a "Collective centering and collective sense-making in the stories and storytelling of one organization." Organization Studies. 16 (1). 107-137.

Boyce, M. 1997 "Organizational story and storytelling: a critical review." Journal of Organizational Change Management. 9(5): 5-26. 
Czarniawska, B.
1997a Narrating the Organization: Dramas of Institutional Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  
Gephart, R. P. 1991 "Succession, sensemaking, and organizational change: A story of a deviant college president." Journal of Organizational Chage Management. 4: 35-44. 
Kaye, M.  1996 Myth-makers and story-tellers. Sydney, NSW, Australia: Business & Professional Publishing Pty Ltd

blog comments powered by Disqus