Tools do not a master make [redux]

I’ve been catching up on the posts over at Work Literacy (that’s a lot of catching up!), along with discovering new (to me) blogs in the field of learning. This in turn has had me revisiting old posts and ideas of my own.

Joan Vinall-Cox’s post Old Skills and New Know-How, a response to Michele Martin’s post Knowledge Workers as Craft Workers (which, as it turns out, is based on a comment I left to another of Michele’s posts), discusses the importance of understanding the skills that must go into using a new technology.

Re-printed below is a post of mine from August 2006, Tools do not a master make, that explores a similar theme.

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No tool of modern technology is as universally used, and almost as universally reviled, in the world of business and government as is Microsoft PowerPoint. Perhaps most famous of the PowerPoint bashers is Edward Tufte, writer of several books and essays on information design. (I was fortunate enough to attend one of his courses in the late ’90s, his poster of Napoleon’s March to Moscow still hangs on the wall in my office.)

Tufte has described his issues with PowerPoint in magazine articles (such as PowerPoint is Evil in Wired magazine), in a self-published essay entitled The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, and in a chapter in his latest book Beautiful Evidence. In the past week or so a few others have also lambasted PowerPoint, including Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge in a couple of posts (Festival of Bureaucratic Hyper-Rationalism and Tufte and PowerPoint) and Scott Adams (via Dilbert).

Don Norman, of the Nielsen Norman Group, has a different take on PowerPoint. In his essay In Defense of PowerPoint, Norman places the blame not on PowerPoint but on those who use it improperly. “Don’t blame the problem on the tool.” Or, put another way – PowerPoint doesn’t bore people, people bore people. Cliff Atkinson is another who believes that PowerPoint can be used effectively. For some great ideas check out the Beyond Bullets blog or Atkinson’s book Beyond Bullet Points.

Of course, this problem is not limited to the world of business. One of the big promises of ever faster and more powerful consumer technology (if we are to believe marketing campaigns) is that everyone will be able to perform like an expert. Take, for example, the following pitch for Apple’s GarageBand software (emphasis is mine):

The new video track in GarageBand makes it easy to add an original music score to your movies. And don’t worry about your musical talent — or lack thereof. Just use GarageBand’s included loops, or try a combination of loops, software instruments, or any previous audio recordings you created.

Don’t get me wrong, I love GarageBand (and the whole iLife suite for that matter, I use it almost every day). It is very easy to create a ’song’ using loops, like my First Song. Once I got comfortable with the GarageBand interface, it only took me a couple of hours to browse through the loops, pull some together so it sounded good, and export it to iTunes. The ’song’ is listenable, but doesn’t reflect any real musical skill on my part. I didn’t apply any knowledge of time signatures, keys, tempo, or anything. I just dragged-and-dropped.

I guess my point is don’t get pulled into a false belief that a tool, any tool, can make you an expert at something or give you expert results. Remember, good tools are nice to have, but in the hands of a master even the simplest of tools can create wonders.

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You may also want to check out one of my earliest posts, Quick example of individual productivity gains / savings based on digital thinking.

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Lessons learned and learned lessons

Dave Snowden, with whom I share a general dislike (maybe distrust is a better word) for lessons learned / best practices, has a post from about a year ago on the difference between lessons learned and learning lessons. I’m revisiting these ideas after sharing my thoughts about knowledge work as craft and the growth and development of young knowledge workers as craftsmen with the Work Literacy group.

Before someone can start working in a craft, they must first learn the basics of the craft. Part of this learning is traditional learning of the facts, procedures, and techniques that have been learned and passed along by those who have gone before. While not “lessons learned” in the usual sense, this type of lessons learned (or best practice) can be of value.

In fact, I think that assimilation of this knowledge, obtained from lessons learned by others, is a key early step in helping people become able to learn their own lessons later on in their career. Without a solid foundation of what has already been learned, the apprentice is destined to “reinvent the wheel” more than is necessary. (Note the “more than necessary” caveat: I believe that it is important for the novice to attempt some reinvention of their own; this gives them an understanding of the importance of those early lessons.)

The journey of an apprentice to the realm of the master is, in many ways, a journey from knowledge consumption to knowledge creation. As an apprentice, the reliance on existing knowledge is very high. The journeyman learns to understand the knowledge in use and apply it in creative, new ways. The master, while grounded in the existing knowledge of the craft, is not constrained by that knowledge as he creates new knowledge for use by the next wave of apprentices.

The same progression can be seen in many aspects of knowledge work. Most will start off in college, accumulating that basic information they need for their chosen field, then move on to a “journeyman” stage in a company (or their own company) where they will learn how to apply that accumulated knowledge. For most, this is the stage they will remain at for most of their career.

If they are lucky, and of course diligent in continuing to develop their own work literacy, they will progress to the “master” stage where they can re-write what is taught to students in college.