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[ba-ohs-talk] Tasks, Tools, and methods

Title: The use of tools brings with it a whole series of other issues

The use of tools brings with it a whole series of other issues.


A hammer, a screwdriver, a glue gun, a biscuit joiner, and a dovetail jig are all tools that address the problem of joining pieces of wood together. Each has an approach to the problem (a method, or even a philosophy), and mixing the tools an methods doesn’t work (a biscuit joiner will not drive screws, and a hammer doesn’t glue things). Thus, whether I choose an approach and then the tool, or a tool and then the approach, the decisions are not independent. Sometimes tools can be used for purposes other than that for which they were designed – a screwdriver makes a useful pry bar at times, and I have some tools that *look* like screwdrivers that are really paint stirrers.


The amount of time, effort, energy, and money that I am willing to invest in finding, acquiring, and learning to use a tool involves many issues related to the task that I am trying to accomplish – how many times do I need to repeat the task, am I doing this for fun or for profit, how important is the specific task at hand, how soon does it need to be done, etc. It also involves some issues that are not directly related to the task – pride of workmanship, craftsmanship, degree of elegance, desire to learn specific techniques, interest in the methods for their own sake, etc.


A tool that helps accomplish a task that has no interest for me is an uninteresting tool, no matter how well suited it might be to the task it addresses. I am not interested in tools for making violins unless I am engaged in making violins.


Once I decide upon an approach to a task, and that I do want to do the task, the tools that I choose can make a difference. A good screwdriver is usually better than a cheap one, and powered screwdriver is great for those tasks for which it is suited. The suitability of a tool is then measured by the degree to which it facilitates the task I want to accomplish. It is possible for a tool to be so ill-suited that it actually makes the task more difficult than not using it. Powered screwdrivers have to be of a certain quality and power before they become useful at all compared to an unpowered screwdriver. Some normal screwdrivers are of such poor quality as to be nearly useless for their intended purpose.


Sometimes a tool makes it possible to do things that I have never been able to do before in any way, and I sometimes don’t know whether the task is even worth doing much less having a tool for – digital cameras and color printers come to mind. We never used to take pictures, and my wife has several rolls of undeveloped film that are so old that the technology needed to develop them exists only is specialty photo labs. Since we had never been able to print in color, we had no idea whether it was anything we cared to do. When the cost of ink jet printers dropped low enough to make one worthwhile as an experiment, we were able to do color printing, and found out that it was very nice to have, sometimes. We still print far more black and whit than color.


There are perhaps hundreds programs to manage todo lists I do not use them because none of them solves any of my problems with todo lists, and my interest in actually using todo lists is low enough that there will have to be better tools and approaches than any I have seen before I thing that the tools is useful to me. Much of what I do doesn’t require anything fancy for lists. Mostly we just remember what we want to do. Sometimes we write a list on paper, and when things get tight enough we will put a list into a PDA. None of the tools do a good job of managing tasks the way I want to manage them, and I haven’t felt enough need for a support tool to invest the time in writing one.


Tools for knowledge management are no different than any other tools in this regard. Most explanations of what knowledge management is do not connect with any task that people recognize that they want to accomplish. As with me and todo lists, the task is not important enough to warrant doing anything special to accomplish it. As with color printing, most will not know how valuable the tool can be until they try it. However, the suitability of a tool depends on the degree of interest in the task, so many people are not willing to invest much effort in doing knowledge management under any definition, since there is no apparent demand for it – they have no screws to drive and so they see no benefit to having a really excellent screwdriver that they would then have to learn how to use.


Tools for collaboration have another hurdle in that they require several people to agree to use them. A telephone or a fax machine is of little use if you have the only one in town. A word processor can produce printed documents better than using a typewriter (sometimes), so it doesn’t matter which one I use. If I wish to exchange documents electronically, however, having a technologically superior tool that produces superb documents that nobody else can read doesn’t benefit me.


If the way I work currently satisfies my employer (I get paid, I get raises), and is that same as the way everybody else around me works, changing that is of very low priority. Nearly everyone knows that there are better ways of working than the ones they are using, but the incentive to use them has got to become greater than the tendency toward inertia by enough to make the expenditure of energy worthwhile. If I were to decide that I *really* needed and wanted to use todo lists, I would find some way to use some tool or tools to help with the task, but until then, the tools will have to become a lot closer to the way I would like them to work before they interest me.


As the maxim goes, some people make things happen, some people watch things happen, some people wonder what happened, and other people are unaware that anything has happened.


With good tools it may be possible to move a few people near the top of each group into the bottom of the group above. Barriers to participation can move people down in the list.


So far as a OHS / DKR is concerned, we have the same sort of spread. Some people will work hard to make any tool work for them, others will try and give up while wondering at those who learn to use the tools successfully, and others will never become aware that there are such tool, nor care because the tools address tasks in which they have no interest.


Everyone who attempts to institute a new order of things is faced with the problem of getting others to realize that there is any merit in the new order. When the fax machine was first introduced, it flopped because people simply couldn’t understand why they should want messages delivered faster than the next day.


When we discuss the building of tools for knowledge management, collaboration, and mass participation, we cannot discuss the tools or their features apart from the methods that those tools or features use to address the problem, and the views of those who may be willing to use the tools. Every set of features, methods, and investment levels (time, effort, energy, learning) affects which people will be interested in the tool. Some early adopters will use anything just because it is there, enthusiasts will make use of complex tools, but in order to bring the mass of late adopters on board, the tools must be sufficiently low in entry cost and ease of use to justify what is only a casual interest in the uses of the tool itself. Look at such things as radio, which went from nearly requiring an engineering degree to being an appliance that can be used by anybody.


Not only do we need to build tools, we need to evolve the methods and approaches on which to base those tools. We then need to convey to people why the problem is important (to them), and how the tools can make it easier, or in some cases even possible.





Garold (Gary) L. Johnson