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, 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.

Related blog posts:


What is learning?

Time for new stuff!!! Ah, love the learning!

(Social) learning: how we evolve (together) by questioning our environment

(Social) learning: how we evolve (together) by questioning our environment

After over three weeks hectic weeks that kept me away from blogging, I’m happy to finally be back on the (WordPress) dashboard to share some recent work. And the biggest item on a long list of ‘to blog’ is this presentation that I just prepared about learning. I will be giving this presentation today for an all-staff meeting at IRC as an introduction to one of our ‘travel free weeks’.

Travel free weeks are given a negative name (about what we don’t do: travel – we’re all supposed to be around) for what is essentially a week of organisational learning. And learning we do and talk about at IRC. A quick search for ‘learning’ gave back 992 hits on our website – on a total of I suspect over 12000 items. This is seriously core to our business. But do we always refer back to the theory and practice of learning, at personal, organisational, collective and even societal level? That I question, and anyway for whoever wishes to work on learning, going back to the white board with the ‘where are we at’ question every so often is just a standard (good) practice. That is the key to becoming a learning organisation. Remember Einstein: “It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.

So here’s the presentation. I made it on Prezi, because it’s a new tool I wanted to (indeed) learn about, also because I think its fresh feel may put the audience in a different seat and engage them in a different way. I got triggered to use Prezi when I first heard @Joitske (Hulsebosch) tweet about it, then when I read this great blog post by Robert @Swanwick about his own experience with Prezi and finally when I saw my first Prezi about designing an academic poster, by Adam Read. But no more talk now, check the presentation:

… or online: What (the heck) is learning?

My learning curve with Prezi?

  • It’s funny how it actually feels like Prezi has been around and we do Prezi-type presentations all the time, whereas the logic of the presentation is very different to Powerpoints and it really has the advantage of focusing on one point at a time, which gives the audience a better chance to relate what you’re saying with what they’re seeing. Oh sure you can (and should) do it with Powerpoint but we all know our tendency to use as much of a white space we can with text, text and more text, especially when we’ve been trained to keep Powerpoints to an average of 10-15 slides – something we are un-learning at the moment, but it takes time to un-learn!
  • The development logic takes a while to master, not least because it involves a lot of zooming in and out to write text in small enough a display to keep it invisible when scrolling from one bit of text to another in the presentation.
  • I really like the canvas logic, the liberty and reduced linearity that you enjoy when developing and showing the presentation.
  • Framing the elements of your presentation in consistent blocks is helpful but perhaps the last thing to do in the presentation because any edit on the presentation requires you to zoom in on the element you need to edit and the overlay frame tends to be the element you pick up when you try to edit a smaller element.
  • I haven’t yet explored the possibility to embed video and audio bits and I hope it is possible or there is a (Power)point to keep using PPTs (which can do that). There is anyway as Prezi should just complement the current offer of presentation tools and find what works for you, and most importantly what because matters in the presentation, with Prezi or else, is what YOU are saying, not what’s on display.
  • I found the set of backgrounds rather limited too and hope it is easy to use new/other backgrounds.
  • Finally, for future presentations I will think further about the way I wish to use because there is a lot of learning (and effectiveness) potential there, but even with a simple – read: no-surprise – presentation like mine the surprise effect is there yet – I reckon!

Let’s see how my colleagues react to it! This, in itself, would deserve a reply blog post, don’t you think?

Related blog posts: