Digital Storytelling in the US Army

This week Jonathan Silk, a US Army Officer stationed at the United States Military Academy at West point, NY, shared his digital story telling practice with the CPsquare community. For this digital storytelling work he won the 2012 Pepperdine Award for outstanding work in community development.

CPsquare group shot

Storytelling is used in many organisations as a knowledge management strategy. Through storytelling tacit knowledge is elicited and shared for the benefit of the whole organization. Jonathan has shared his own story in a blog post ‘Why I tick when I run’.

In the US Army, storytelling has been used to great effect within the MILSPACE Community of Practice  to share leadership stories from the field; this has been the subject of Jonathan Silk’s action research.

The key point that came out of Jonathan’s CPsquare presentation and the discussion, was that although storytelling is a powerful tool for binding a community, it needs to be managed carefully in terms of the technology, in terms of the stories and commitment to gathering those stories, and in terms of learning from the stories.

The technology

The MILSPACE community uses an ordinary video camera. Videos are edited on a Mac with Final Cut Pro . The Army has a designated person to do this editing and to date has over 1500 video stories of 3-5 minutes in length.

The main issue for the MILSPACE community has been to make the videos easily accessible to community members, easy to search, and easy to comment on and discuss. JCarousel is used to support this and recent work has focused on tags and video titles. Appropriate titles have been found to be very influential on the number of times a video is viewed (see Jonathan’s report for further details).

Managing story collection

The MILSPACE community has over 20,900 members and focuses on the leadership development of cadets, lieutenants and captains in the US Army. Stories are collected in the field. A dedicated team went out to locations such as Iraq and Afghanistan to create the videos. Leaders were almost universally keen to be interviewed and understand that sharing their stories and learning adds value to the whole community.

Video interviews can be conducted with a single leader or with a group and are usually around a given topic, e.g. eight leaders have given video interviews on the topic of ‘Your first 30 days in a country’.

The stories can be highly emotive and elicit deeply reflective thinking. This requires careful, sensitive and experienced management by the interviewer. Trust and positive relationships are essential to the story collection process and it is understood that the videos are ‘owned’ by the interviewees. No videos are published without the consent of the interviewee, although they are carefully screened for any potential security issues.

Learning from the video stories

The collection of over a 1,500 videos does not necessarily mean that they are used effectively for learning. The MILSPACE community is currently exploring means of increasing discussion around the videos. Recent work has involved developing a more structured approach to the management of discussion around the videos, through establishing groups of topic leaders (peer panels) who make personal contact with interviewees and seed discussion and comments around the videos to build learning relationships. This is work in progress.

Final thoughts

It is not difficult to understand what a powerful effect video stories could have on the learning of a community, particularly one such as the US Army where as Jonathan Silk has put it the cycle between action and reflection is so fast and chaotic that it’s difficult to capture the learning.

This potential has been recognized and supported by the hierarchy in the US Army, which has devoted technology and manpower to the process.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the process and potentially the most interesting is yet to be fully developed, and that is an exploration of just how do video stories add value to a community of practice.  This is a process that has recently been highlighted by Wenger et al in their publication

Wenger, E., Trayner, B., and de Laat, M. (2011) Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: a conceptual framework. Rapport 18, Ruud de Moor Centrum, Open University of the Netherlands.

I found Jonathan Silk’s presentation very interesting and valuable, because it helped to clarify the issues surrounding the collection and management of video stories.  It will be interesting to see how the work develops.

(This post has also been copied to the CPsquare blog).

5 thoughts on “Digital Storytelling in the US Army

  1. fred6368 October 1, 2012 / 10:15 am

    Excellent Case Study as ever Jenny thanks!

  2. jennymackness October 3, 2012 / 3:30 pm

    Thanks for your comment Fred. It was an interesting session – in one way right outside my experience, but in another way very closely linked to my experience!

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