Free and cheap technology is killing organizational effectiveness

Technologies supporting knowledge work are deceptive, especially for knowledge work shared among groups and teams. The ease of getting started obscures the challenge of learning to be effective. We focus on the details of particular features and functions at the expense of ignoring the cognitive challenges of deep thought and collaborative work.

I’ve been participating in a Slack team with a loose group of colleagues scattered across two continents. I was off the grid for about two weeks and found myself lost when I returned to the conversation that had continued in my absence. My first hypothesis was that Slack was the culprit and that some magically better UX would eliminate the problem. Slack, of itself, isn’t the problem but it is emblematic of the deeper issue that should be tackled.

In trades and crafts, the most experienced and effective practitioners would never invest in cheap tools or materials. Learning to use those tools and materials effectively is the work of years of deliberate practice. The strategy shouldn’t be any different if you are manipulating ideas than if you were manipulating clay. But the marketing and deployment of software rejects these hard won lessons. Software fame and fortune is built on promises of simplicity and ease of use, where ease of use has been interpreted as ease of getting started and minimally productive. We’ve all become facile with learning the first 5% of new tools and services. We’ve been led to believe or we pretend that this is enough. Few among us are prepared to invest in pushing further. Fewer still belong to organizations willing to support this investment.

The payoff from even this 5% has long been sufficient in terms of personal and organizational impact. We’re reaching the limits of the return from this minimalist strategy–it’s even more acute when we shift focus from individual knowledge workers to teams and groups.

To go beyond the 5% we need to modify our expectations and approaches about how we blend powerful tools with powerful practices. We need to adopt the attitudes of those who think in terms of craft and expert practice. Organizationally, we need to provide the time, space, and support to design and invent this new craft.

My hypothesis is that there are models to look to and borrow from. In particular, I believe that the world of software development has the longest and richest experience of dealing with the individual and group production of the thought products of the knowledge economy. Further, there are individual expert knowledge work craftspeople in various other fields; their tools and practices are also worth understanding and reverse engineering.

I don’t have this all figured out yet. Nonetheless, I ‘d like to get a new conversation going about how to improve on this train of thought. Where are good places to look?

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