The Stone Age was marked by man’s clever use of crude tools; the information age, to date, has been marked by man’s crude use of clever tools. – Anonymous
If you had to set up in business tomorrow what tools would you need?
For most knowledge workers an office suite might seem like the most useful package – the trinity of Word, Excel and Powerpoint perhaps?
These tools each have a clear purpose: you write documents, do analysis and tell stories.
And get quite stressed.
If you have had the opportunity to work on a consultancy project of any magnitude you will be aware of how, as documents and spreadsheets and presentations get bigger and bigger, the difficulties associated with opening and working with them increase.
Even if you haven’t – but you have had to write a dissertation using Microsoft Word – you have probably experienced the frustration of losing work or struggling to get the file the way you want.
The end result is, in many cases, late nights and angst and stress as you wrestle with the tools that are supposed to help you out.
One way to look at tools is to think of what happens when you use a hammer to help you during a project.
If you need to bang a nail into a wall so you can hang a picture the hammer works in a certain way.
If you need to bang in the last nail on your multi-storey construction the hammer will work in exactly the same way.
As tools go the hammer isn’t fazed by how complex your project is. It just does the job it’s designed to do.
If you are a craftsman or a tradesperson who has to rely on your tools for a living you will probably take some care in selecting them.
Many years ago I was introduced to electronics repair by a technician who took me to a store where we purchased some high quality kit – from screwdrivers and needle nose pliers to an analogue multimeter.
These tools are still with me today, a couple of decades later and although some have been used to stir pots of paint along the way by others who should know better, they still work as well as they did on day one.
And there is no way I would use a Swiss Army Knife or a Leatherman as my primary tool when taking apart a machine.
So why is it that knowledge workers spend their lives working on problems with the digital equivalent of a multi-purpose tool from a dollar store?
Or worse, we do everything through interfaces – web based or app based that suggest that you can create works of complexity and beauty by pressing the right combination of buttons.
There is something fundamentally wrong with this – and that’s probably why most people don’t actually get very good at using digital tools.
Perhaps what’s happening is that we are too far away from the thing we are working on.
With a mechanical tool you are right there with the job.
I remember once having to repair a motorcycle brake system – the calliper was stuck and I couldn’t work out how to get the thing off.
As Pirsig writes in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, I was stuck as well.
What is the equivalent of that kind of stuckness in knowledge work?
Is it perhaps not being able to work out what an algorithm does, what argument to make next in your essay or which font to select?
With physical problems the tools you use are designed to fix the problem.
With knowledge work the main tool you have is your brain – your ability to think about and focus on the problem at hand.
Digital tools don’t help you think any better.
In fact, perhaps the purest approach to carrying out great knowledge work is to sit quietly and think deeply.
The tools you select to help you should help you to capture, organise and communicate complex thoughts and ideas worth sharing.
Tools that encourage you to write one line emails, send out updates and log into portals should probably be seen as a form of entertainment.
But if you really want to get work done you should choose your digital tools with the same care with which a master craftsperson selects their tools.
But the tragedy is many people don’t even know they have that choice.