The tool obsession, a serious(ly) childish posture…


In my work around agile KM, I use a lot of tools for learning, sharing, documenting. I have yet to blog about the bouquet of tools that I use. In this post, I’m ranting against the biggest illusion of all in this field of business: the sacrosanct worship of tools.

Stop thinking that all your problems are nails and that you need a hammer! (Credits - Adam Rosenberg / FlickR)

Stop thinking that all your problems are nails and that you need a hammer! (Credits – Adam Rosenberg / FlickR)

Tools are what every serious person wants to solve serious issues, not like ‘hot and fuzzy’ knowledge sharing processes. They don’t realise it’s pretty childish to have such simplistic expectations… And unfortunately that misplaced expectation is running down the spine of most people, not just serious managers: From the recent Komms Klinics sessions we run at ILRI – the last one being about ‘managing and finding information‘, to a recent study tour that a UNICEF team did at ILRI, everyone is in search and need for tools…

This is not a new problem in KM, but what can we do about it? At ILRI we changed our approach with the Komms Klinics training sessions to emphasize communication and KM processes more widely, rather than (just) tools, and made it clear in our announcement that we were going to do so… only to find out that most people attending the sessions expect to be trained on tools. We want people to think about the tools, but preferably when they realise the context where these tools make sense, not as blanket solutions that will fix everything.

While looking for some additional answers here are some reasons why tools are not the panacea for your information and management issues…

  1. A tool serves a purpose – some tools are even designed for a certain (set of) purpose(s). This has two implications: firstly, tools give the false impression that they can solve every single problem – someone with a hammer sees nails everywhere as goes the proverb. But not every issue is a nail… tools do not solve all problems, they are not magic bullets, they are not blueprints for universal issues.
  2. Second implication: Focus on the purpose rather than the tool first. Form follows function, and tools may not be the answer for the problem you have. But a tool adapted to a clear purpose could indeed help.
  3. Once the purpose is clear, a tool comes with a practice (blogging, tweeting, saving bookmarks on del.icio.us, sharing knowledge etc.). The practice is all about behaviour change – that is real transformation and problem solving (even though tools help then) but it is a slow transformation.
  4. It takes time to understand, play around, reflect upon, muster or master tools to get them to work for you – so in the short run they are certainly not the answer to get more effective.
  5. When used collectively, tools take additional time for awareness-raising, training, coaching about ongoing use, devising principles of use and guidelines etc. Otherwise tools create more mess than order.
  6. Tools keep evolving quickly, meaning that over-reliance on them makes you more susceptible to run into trouble later. The purpose for which the tool has been set up is what should drive the solution, once again.

Tools are not magic bullets, they are shortcuts to improved practices, provided that those practices are questioned as well. No tool is going to replace the reflection that one needs to establish their needs, capacities and required practices. So rub it in fellows: while it’s seriously cool to play with tools, it’s smarter and more effective to focus on a practice that’s reflexive.

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5 thoughts on “The tool obsession, a serious(ly) childish posture…

  1. Thank you Nancy, I thought you might think about tools in that way. Again in this post I’m not coming myself with a definition of tools but am reacting to what people are referring to when talking about tools – and their sacrosanct belief that tools are a magical solution that will solve all their problems… Yesterday it was all ‘databases’ (now, that’s actually coming back on the menu with the ‘big data’ comeback) and today it’s all social media…

    Thanks for your guiding questions!

  2. So you are talking about web based tools. That matters. Because a conversation might be a tool. A friendship may be the tool that leverages collaboration. A broad definition changes the nature of the sort of reflection you invited us into. Thus the question. I’ve run into this challenge when people talk of “methods” and “processes.” I stumble, and realize we are not talking about similar things, all the while sure we know what we mean by the words. I guess old ladies have time to ask this sort of question.😉

  3. Thank you for your witty comment Jaap and for your good question Nancy. I can’t really offer a comprehensive definition of a tool – although that would be a great thing to do and perhaps sthg I should think about carefully – because it’s also not my intention here. The ‘tools’ I have in mind though are social media and other online tools that help us do sthg to connect, converse, connect more deeply, collect and collate and/or collaborate. It’s the ‘databases’ that I hear about, it’s the wikis and blogs and social networks such as Facebook and Yammer…
    The tools I’m talking about in this post are the tools that others are talking about, precisely (though not always) without defining what these tools are…

    And of course I like tools, but I just see the danger that tools play the role of the magic bullet, but tools are work – high pain high gain – if you want high value. It takes time to work around them.

    Thanks again for the comment, I should start such a post with a mini definition. What was the reason behind your question, if any?

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