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Stories and Drama: Are They Useful As Value Adding Business Tools?

Stories and Drama: Are They Useful As Value Adding Business Tools?

By Henk du Plessis who can be contacted at www.learningtheatre.co.za

1. Introduction

This is a story about Story. The story explores if Story or Drama (theatre) can assist business in achieving their goals or if it is merely fictional. The characters in the story are Mrs Drama Story, Mr Cell Phone, Mr Personal Computer (PC) and Ms Paperclip. Our story takes place in the Offices of the Chamber of Value Adding Business Tools.

2. Conventional theatre applications in business

The applicants, Drama Story and Cell Phone, were waiting in the reception area to do their presentations to become full members of the Chamber. Drama was pacing up and down, nervously rehearsing her presentation, while Cell recalled the many conversations he had had about the committee they were about to meet.

Suddenly Drama stopped pacing and asked Cell, "I know that millions of people use you every day, so why are you are only an affiliate member?"

Cell answered despondently, "That is the popular opinion. However, the technology that I am capable of is not used well enough in business." He added angrily, "Users want my interfaces made simpler, because most users are either too dim or too scared to use my ‘advanced’ applications like WAP to the advantage of business" (1). In a more upbeat (ring)tone he continued, "Others found creative uses for more standard functions. For example, one business sends out SMS's to remind ill users to take their chronic medication on time" (2).

"I'm very sure that Ms Paperclip in the membership committee will enjoy the creativity of that ill venture," Drama quipped. "In my case I'm only an affiliated member for much the same reasons you gave. I'm frequently used to educate low level staff about general topics such as HIV/Aids and Safety. Often I'm not even considered for more complex applications such as Transformation. How am I supposed to prove my worth if I don't get the same opportunities as the tools who are full members of the Chamber of Value Adding Business Tools," she concluded bitterly.

"Well," Cell replied, "Mr PC, the Chair of the Committee, is calling you to do your presentation. Good luck!"

"Dear Mr PC and Ms Paperclip," Drama began her presentation, anxiously. "I've been around for a very long time. In South Africa Story was, and still is, used by many indigenous peoples to convey important lessons..."

Mr PC interrupted, "This is not History 101, tell us what is relevant for business applications?"

Drama rearranged her notes and continued, "In the early eighties in South Africa, Story (locally named industrial theatre) made a mark in especially the mining industry, educating workers about safety and productivity. Since then I'm often used to communicate and explain new policies and..."

"Those applications are interesting my dear," Ms Paperclip interrupted kindly, "but tell us, why are you applying for full membership?"


3. Novel application of theatre in business

Drama seized the opportunity with confidence, "I support business to successfully implement strategies such as Customer Service Improvement, Employment Equity, Leadership Development, Enterprise Resource Planning, Human Capital Development and Alignment, to name but a few."

After running the jargon through his Thesaurus Mr PC responded condescendingly, "Imposing words, explain how?"

Drama applied her best characterisation of a professor, "Theatre provides a three dimensional and comprehensive representation of the truth. Story, as building block of theatre, offers the flow of events, emotions experienced, mindsets, beliefs and assumptions about the relevant business strategy in a concise format. Clear illustrations for fresh insight, powerful images to mobilise people and compelling learning events can be provided, and that can often make or break the successful implementation of business strategies.

"Those are bold claims," Ms Paperclip said sceptically.

Professor Drama replied, "It is dependent on application of methodologies such as organisational development, emotional intelligence, (cognitive) psychology, narrative therapy and performing arts. It is also imperative that an outcomes based approach be followed – then I know when I will receive applause. Applause is good for my soul…"

Mr PC cut her short, "Good, well done, let’s focus on the outcome of this presentation. Explain how these methodologies add value?"

Drama continued sheepishly, "The organisational development application ensures the comprehensive content of the story – the big picture. It also positions the story or theatre implementation for high impact within each company. Psychology provides the framework for mental models, assumptions and motivation of the characters.

"Emotional intelligence, at the most general level, refers to the abilities to recognize and regulate emotions in ourselves and in others (3). Actors on stage act out the range of emotions experienced by the employees regarding the relevant business issue." With a slight smile Drama added, "Humour is a serious issue. It helps to relieve tension (even fear) and if people laugh at their own behaviour when it is dramatised on stage, then resistance to change often crumbles."

"I understand that the performing arts or theatre methodology holds the other methodologies together, so to speak," Ms Paperclip commented. "But why narrative therapy? Is business that crazy?"

"No, certainly not," Drama replied quickly. "Narratives or stories provide people with a sense of continuity, meaning, and a framework to interpret further experiences.’(4)" She concluded passionately, "By viewing the ‘problem’ as a separate entity, as portrayed by the theatre production, it gives people an entirely new perspective on the issue that faces them." (5) .

Mr PC looked lingeringly at Mrs Drama and said, "Yes, you certainly do paint a pretty picture." Ms Paperclip cleared her throat rather loudly; Mr PC immediately re-activated MAP (Member Application Programme) and asked, "What I am trying to get to is to understand how the down side looks like?"

4. Practical illustrations - Positives and negatives

Drama answered softly, "That is a rather personal question. It is difficult to be negative about myself so I’ll provide information as published in research. Typical concerns are the time that employees are unproductive while attending the intervention, the difficulty in scheduling employees to attend, and the cost involved. (6)

"And how friendly is the user interface?" Mr PC asked.

Drama had no idea what this question meant and looked beseechingly at Ms Paperclip.

"Practical applications please," Ms Paperclip explained.

Drama carefully selected a case study from the six examples she had prepared, "An organisation developed a comprehensive strategy to position themselves as a world class service provider in their specific industry. Two years after initiating the strategy many employees were de-motivated, anxious, and confused as to how various business processes fit into the strategy and how they were to be implemented. A theatre workshop dealing with themes such as employment equity, change drivers, trust, leadership, the business case for change, etc. was designed as part of a rejuvenation initiative. The theatre production was integrated in a workshop format, hosted by the CEO, and supported by trained facilitators." (7)

Drama took a sip of water before continuing, "All the outcomes planned were achieved. The most crucial result was that 85% of employees were enthused and believed that they were now equipped to deal with the new strategy."

"Thank you," Ms Paperclip said. "Any final remarks?"

5. Summary

"Over and above the standard theatre applications, when properly applied in support of strategy implementation, I add measurable value to business," (7) Drama stated proudly.

Ms Paperclip twisted into a new position. "I think Drama Story surprised you," she said to Mr PC. "Maybe new software to compute the rich diversity of tools…"

Mr PC interrupted, "If I have enough space on my hard drive and don't have to delete any current programs, I'll consider it."


Drama took a deep breath and said, "Carefully verify that the new programs are compatible with the current programs, maybe some adaptations will be required.

Both Mr PC and Ms Paperclip looked silently at Drama for five long seconds. Then Mr PC said, "Your status as affiliate member has been revoked. Only full members have the right and responsibility to criticise other full members. Therefore, Drama – you are accepted as full member of the Chamber of Value Adding Business Tools!"

Drama Story left the reception area in a daze and did not hear Cell Phone calling her. Cell caught up with her at the door. "What happened?" he asked.

"I've been accepted," Drama said proudly.

"Congratulations," Cell replied. "But how did you do it?"

As Drama walked out of the door she looked momentarily at Cell before replying, "I gave them a ring of the truth."


Haslam, D. 2002. The Mobile Enterprise. http://www.sageresearch.com/MSage Research Releases Results of First Sage Technology RoundtableayMobileEnterprise_a.htm..

Green, D. 2002. Press Release: South African company commended for innovative use of technology by world cellular phone industry. http://www.on-cue.co.za/press_release.pdf.

Goleman, D, 1995, Emotional intelligence, Bantam Books, New York.

White & Epston 1990, cited in Freedman and Combs 1996.

Freedman J Combs, G, 1996, Narrative therapy – The social construction of preferred realities, W.W. Nortan & Company, New York.

Maritz, J., de Beer, J.J., du Plessis, H.W. 2002. Managerial Perceptions Concerning the Utility of the Industrial Theatre as Medium to Assist in Managing Change. University of Pretoria, Pretoria: Unpublished honours dissertation

Van Diggelen, D., du Plessis, H., P-LEARNING - Power in the "play". HR Future. June 2003

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Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

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