I had lunch a while back with a former colleague from Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. He is also a fellow cohort member from my Masters in KM program, from which we both graduated in late 2009. We have worked together extensively. After eating we were discussing the situation at my former (and his current) place of employment, which is a bit unclear at this point.
As I shared my thoughts about the value (as I see it) of using social media to increase the organization’s capabilities (you know, the innovative, collaborative, communicative ones), he said something he had said to me over and over while I was still a colleague . . . “It’s not about the tools!”
Now, essentially I agree with him – at least to a point. Tools are, by themselves, absolutely useless unless they’re used to get things done in the manner for which they were designed. Even better, if you can figure out how to use them creatively they can be even more powerful. Try pounding a nail into a stud with your bare fist, though, and then tell me it’s not about the tools.
Nevertheless, this argument is valid when taken in the context of an organization where people think that throwing tools at a problem will somehow, magically I guess, solve the problem confronting them. I have personally seen this happen quite a bit and, in fairness to my friend, it did seem to be a common occurrence at our place of employment.
On the other hand, we’re probably all aware of situations where the simplest of tools served an organization well in dealing with a particularly difficult situation. This can only happen, I think, when the people confronting the situation are open and honest about what they’re facing and how it’s affecting the processes and people who are tasked with dealing with it.
This means they have to be able to think both critically and creatively. Too often people get to thinking in predictable ways and they pigeonhole the problem, thereby confining their possible solutions to the things they’re familiar with and have previous knowledge of. This usually leads to failure.
The thing about tools, though, is that they frequently give us the ability to use a bit of lateral – or even sideways – thinking. In the case of social tools such as Jive or Socialcast or Yammer, we’re also given the possibility of working together and sharing our information and knowledge in ways not previously possible.
A perfect example of how not to do it is the way in which the company I used to work at shared their knowledge of rocket engine design and manufacture. It was always the case that younger Engineers would send email requests to their older counterparts, requesting information on design intent or material properties or manufacturing techniques, etc. The older colleague might spend days researching and crafting an answer, which would then be sent back to the requester in an email.
The problem with this was that access to all this wonderfully useful information was now confined to the two (sometimes a few more, depending on who was included initially) people engaged in the conversation. Usually, within a short while the information and knowledge so thoroughly and carefully created was lost; frequently even to the original person asking the question. This was because there was no useful method by which email could be easily searched.
Nowadays we can do much better. We have tools, applications, and systems available to us that provide functionality like instant broadcasting (micro-blogging), collaborative creation (wiki, even Google docs), and ubiquitous indexing and search. There is, in my opinion, no excuse for not taking advantage of as many of these tools as is reasonably affordable – taking into consideration the culture of an organization and its tolerance for experimentation and change. Frankly, from what I’ve experienced and from what I learn from friends and others who are engaged in community organization and leadership, there are ways to introduce, champion, and develop these kinds of tools in just about any organization.
So I would wish to characterize the use of tools just a bit differently. I would say it most definitely IS about the tools, but it’s just not entirely about the tools. Having functionality available that was not possible five or ten years ago can change things dramatically. However, it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a conscious effort and, sometimes, dramatic changes in the culture of an organization. Nevertheless, the pain associated with change is usually ameliorated by the newfound capabilities the change brings; the possibilities of developing innovative processes and organizational structures and of increasing both the efficiency and effectiveness of those things we engage in. If anyone tells you it’s not about the tools, as if to say they aren’t important, ask them when was the last time they combed their hair with a fork!