During our recent stay in Toronto, we had the opportunity to grab a drink with Mark Federman, a lecturer and PhD candidate at OISE at the University of Toronto. I had been wanting to meet him for a while after hearing that he was researching Inter Pares as part of his doctoral thesis work. From the moment I picked up his thesis I was immediately drawn into the first chapter, A Brief, 3,000-Year History of the Future of Organization,where he traces the influence that dominate forms of communication have had on the way we have organized ourselves throughout history.
One of the things that he highlights is the richness of the oral culture of Ancient Greece and how this oral culture gave rise to organizational forms that were highly democratic and participatory. He then goes on to show that as the written word developed and then became mechanized with the help of the printing press, the way humans organized themselves followed suit. I found his contrasting descriptions of oral vs. written communication to be quite thought-provoking:
“…Orality is evanescent, existing only at, and for, the time that it is created…Orality exists ‘close to the human lifeworld’ (p. 42). In other words, events and circumstances expressed in a primary-oral society are concrete and subjective, rather than abstract and expressed from an objective standpoint…Oral learning is based in communal, actively participatory experience in which the participants help to create the experiential learning environment, rather than being at a cognitive, temporal, and physical distance from the source of knowledge. Finally, orality creates community and is necessarily homeostatic, requiring constant repetition and continual engagement for its continuity and survival.”
“…The written word travels well, alleviating the necessity for transporting the person along with his ideas or pronouncements. Instrumentally, phonetic literacy takes what is integral- the words coming from someone’s mouth- and fractures them, separating sound from meaning. That sound is then encoded into what are otherwise semantically meaningless symbols that we call letters. Those letters are then build up hierarchically, from letters into words, from words into sentences, from sentences into paragraphs, and from paragraphs into scrolls and later, books. (Federman, 2007, p. 4)”
I can’t say I had ever really thought about the way we communicate through a “hierarchical vs. collaborative” lens, but it definitely resonates with me. My experience of highly engaging and expressive social purpose organizations is that they deeply value the oral tradition. They tend to rely as little as possible on written communication, whether it be in the form of policies and procedures, reports, web interactions, or even email communication. I’ve been dipping back into The Southern Wall lately and really love Rennie’s description of this oral tradition at Santropol Roulant, a youth-run food-security organization in Montreal:
“When a story is spoken it enters the present in a way that a written story cannot. The story is heard in a living, human voice; it has vibration, color, and tone. And the story changes with each telling. Each voice sounds different, giving the story a different physical resonance. And each narrator shapes the story in terms of language and plot in a slightly different way. The story is embodied; it lives in and springs from a body. It is literally alive.
This aliveness is true of any oral tradition. It is true of any culture that arranges itself around spoken stories. And Santropol Roulant is, in many ways, composed of stories. People tell stories there all day long – not just the founding story, but stories of encounters, and of experiences and sensations. Technical conversations bloom into stories. A meeting meant to decide how to handle the burgeoning number of special meal requests only comes to life when staff members begin telling stories of the more eccentric requests that they have received. Each story is about a particular encounter with a particular client. Volunteers also share stories as they run routes with each other. Mrs. M. doesn’t like you to knock on her door. Monsieur L. might want to talk about his children for a while. And the clients themselves are often bursting with stories. They bring their pasts to life and infuse the organization with a living, daily history that is larger than the slight, 10-year history it has accumulated on its own.
There is a bardic culture here, a culture in which everyone is a bard, wandering from place to place exchanging stories -practically singing them, such is the energy and enthusiasm behind the words. And a spoken, story-based culture like this demands a kind of presence that a formal, textual culture does not. As each story is voiced, it ceases to be of the past and emerges into the present. The telling of the story face-to-face floods it with present energy. The past is re-created, not represented, and is thus made new and altogether of the moment.”