Conveying Risks through Storytelling

Friday, 20 July 2018: 11:15
Oral Presentation
Marie BARTELS, Technische Universit├Ąt Berlin, Germany, Germany
As critical infrastructure systems such as energy grids and communication networks become increasingly complex and intertwined, there is more need to evaluate and communicate risks of failure, the systems' vulnerabilities, and scenarios of possible operational failures. This is true not only within organisations that operate infrastructure networks but also across organisational borders as in interconnected systems by definition effects can be transboundary. In this case it is a major obstacle that stakeholders aren't experts for the respective technology that may affect their own operations, e.g. firefighters depend on communication services in emergencies but mostly are not familiar with the technical functionality and default risks of mobile networks.

During contingency planning discussions with experts from different infrastructures we observed that the participants often conveyed risks within and towards their own systems by telling stories of incidents or near-misses rather than elaborating on the functionalities of their system architecture. This way they raised awareness of malfunction risks and explain their operative processes to react to disruptions in way that is easier to understand and remember. The importance of storytelling for raising risk awareness within organisations has been widely acknowledged (Weick 1993; Hayes/Maslen 2015). Little attention though has been given to its role in overcoming organisational borders.

Our observations showed that with external stakeholders the participants tended to tell stories that described extremes: On one hand they told stories that emphasized the reliability of their networks and how well they are prepared for distruptions as especially heroic stories are remembered and passed on. On the other hand the representatives stressed the importance and complexity of their systems by focussing on worst case scenarios. This contribution identifies types of stories that are commonly told in such settings and reflect on the chances and shortcomings of awareness this story-based risk communication induces.