A Knowledge Worker’s Toolbox

November 13, 2007

So last week, before a presentation at KMWorld, Dave Snowden dropped a huge carton on my podium. Inside was a Ryobi toolbox: heavy nylon canvas held open by a thick plastic frame and a polished aluminum bar. Ryobi’s popular cordless power tools are available at any Home Depot in the US; but the chain refuses to sell the toolbox designed to carry them. Dave picked one up for me in the UK and schlepped it through security and customs to San Jose. He’s a great guy, but that’s not my point.
Dave and I have debated personal knowledge management (PKM) many times before (eg, for AOK in 2004, which became the lead chapter in Jerry Ash’s Next Generation KM II). Not to rehash it (hashed here), but I believe the collective is just as much a consequence of its constituents as individuals derive their identities from the social constraints and traditions around them.

Anyway, I actually wrote a column in KMWorld magazine for almost five years called “Personal Toolkit.” The idea was that if knowledge workers can be individually more productive, they are in better shape for collaboration and the enterprise reaps the rewards. I think that tool fits into the equation in a number of complex and cultural ways, so I thought I’d mention them here and see what you think:

  1. Think about tools and technologies as different concepts. Technologies are promises, not results. Technologies are of, by and for the corporation–symbols of your dependence and restriction. Their functionality is limited by compromises and constraints. At best, technologies are infrastructures, while tools are defined by use.
  2. Think about the roles tools play in terms of identity in crafts. Nardi demonstrates that it’s the personal relationships that get work done. I think its personal tools that tend to get work done—especially the personal tools that help us collaborate more effectively. Tools empower a knowledge worker; encouraging a sense of ownership and identity in a craft community; and responsibility and pride in mastering those tools to produce quality workmanship.
  3. Think about which tools add value. Why do the limited, quirky and flawed technologies such as email, html and blogs become the most used tools? Exponential adoption often comes down to irrational factors such as addiction and codependence. When technologies are imperfect but hackable, users who customize them end up excusing and defending their flaws. (Look at any iPhone owner.)
  4. Think about the balance between too few and too many tools. Watch any man or woman practicing a craft such as a mechanic, carpenter or chef. In their toolbox, they will always have a selection of tools to do the job. But there is a cost to each tool they master, and a limit to how many they can master. So once a tool becomes an extension of the hand (or mind) they will stretch its utility in ways that were never intended.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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