The art of storytelling in business

How Aston academics support SME business transformation through the power of narrative.

Aston Business School is helping companies manage change through the use of narrative. The school’s free SME Partnership programme has worked with over 300 businesses on developing their service offer and is putting storytelling at the heart of its teaching.

Managing organisational change is challenging and there is nothing as powerful as a story when persuading people to get on board. Aston academics are coaching their cohort in communicating their strategy through narrative, swapping slides for story boards and inspiring stakeholders to join them on their servitization journey.

The SME Partnership programme has been running since 2012, helping businesses servitize their operation through academic engagement, business model innovation and the adoption of new technology. Key to that transformation is engaging with stakeholders and getting them to understand the benefits of enhancing your service offer. The team at Aston uses storytelling as a tool to help SMEs get staff, suppliers and customers onside when shifting business models.

The cohort of business leaders learns how to form a narrative out of their journey and present a compelling case for business transformation. They take the template of The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell and adapt it to their own situation. The classic story is found in texts throughout history and follows a protagonist who goes on an adventure, encounters death and overcomes all obstacles to return home victorious. This simple story and plotline resonates with the human psyche and allows businesses to communicate their mission in a more memorable and engaging way.

SMEs on the programme explore how they can turn their own stakeholders into characters from the story and how they can use the narrative to present them with different business scenarios they may encounter along the way. As the hero faces challenges, the leaders can explore different obstacles on the path to servitization and help their characters find a way around them.

Dr Dan Andrews leads the storytelling research and works closely with a range of businesses on using interactive stories to facilitate organisational change. He says: “Stories are an invaluable tool for managing change and promoting emotional as well as rational engagement. It is easier to make sense of information through narrative and appreciate just what is involved. Good stories are enduring and inspire action.”

He adds: “Many companies are having to adapt their business model in the current climate and change can disruptive. It is far easier to get people on board if you present them with narratives rather than just data.”

Stories are a very effective way of bringing ideas to life, and by turning the business case for change into a narrative people are more likely to be supportive. That ability to communicate your rationale will also help further along the servitization journey when businesses start to engage with suppliers and customers. Communicating the value of your service offer is also easier through narrative, a reason why we now see so much storytelling in advertising.

Birmingham-based business, Allsee Technologies joined the SME Partnership programme to enhance the value of its service offer. The digital display manufacturer had already developed software and associated services, but hadn’t fully exploited it as an avenue for growth.

The Aston team helped Allsee tell the story of its servitization journey to its network of distributors, resellers and integrators. By improving its lines of communication, the business could do a far better job of bringing people on board. Marketing Director Thomas Fraser-Bacon says: “We had a really positive response and it opened our eyes to the impact these services have on our value proposition.”

He adds: “It has changed our relationship with the market and is helping us to win a bigger slice of the cake. The Advanced Services Group SME Partnership is helping us to take our business to another level and the team is passionate about helping their cohort companies to succeed. I’d advise any SME to join the programme. Services are critical to modern manufacturing and no one can afford to miss out.”

The Advanced Services Group’s SME Partnership programme is currently recruiting its next cohort. Part funded by the European Regional Development Fund, the programme helps businesses trading in the Black Country, Birmingham and Solihull LEP regions to boost competitiveness by embracing servitization. Financial data from participating companies indicates that shifting to a servitized model led to combined growth of £30 million.