Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Stubby Pencil Principal

Technology as the tool

This post is being written to address how technology is meant to compliment the business and not complicate the business.

All too often, businesses and organizations look to technology to solve problems. However, sometimes technology is the problem. The organization must be able to articulate what the organizational problem is before a solution can be explored. Remember I am a technology person and I am saying be cautious of technology. Pay heed, truly.

Here is a true case study and the acid test I use almost every day. During the big space race of the 60’s both Russia and the USA were posed with the same problem. How will the astronauts write in their logs in zero gravity? This was/is a real problem. The countless checklists, science experiments and daily logs are a reality for this type of adventure. The USA Team through NASA started on the zero gravity pens. They Spent 10 of thousands of dollars in its research and came up with a swanky solution. The US astronauts were unaware of the great technological advancement made by the zero-gravity engineers but were happy they had a writing instrument. The soviet cosmonauts were given simple pencils and were equally happy. Both solutions worked and worked very well. Hence this is what I call the stubby pencil principal.

The lesson to be learned in the above case study is, “what is the problem?” Both teams understood the problem. The US team wanted a unique technical solution, while the Soviet team just wanted to solve the problem. Again, both worked. I liked the pencil solution for it was quick, relevant, inexpensive, easy to support and allowed the rest of the engineering team to focus on other real new problem like how to navigate back to earth without melting the humans in side.

Every day I have conversations with people and they come back to me with “how can technology solve the problem?” More times than not, I counter with, “let’s look at the current process”. Address that first.

Humans have been using tools and technology since the cave man and its early use of clubs. The tools then as they should be now were used to solve a specific problem. Craftspeople took great pride in making the tools and then allowing other craftspeople to use the tools. What changed? Simply, it comes down to respect and attitude. When we had only hand tools in the house building industry, each craftsman made sure their part was done well for everyone else would benefit from their work. Today with the advent of almost every tool imaginable and with the mindset that fast is better we get poor work from the beginning to the end. We have the capacity to do more with less but what we end up with us less with more tools.

I still love to witness good craftsmanship whether that is in woodworking, sewing, iron works, painting etc. The one thing I have consistently found is that the correct tool with the correct craftsperson creates art. The correct tool with the wrong person is considered work. The wrong tool with the wrong person produces junk.

Take the time to understand the problem, look for several options and when you are committed to a solution then put it in correctly.

I heat with wood and my wife and I enjoy the process of wood heat. You have to go into the bush, select your trees, drop your trees, cut your trees into stove length, split the wood and then stack the wood. On the surface, why bother? But in reality we have an appreciation for wood heat. We do not over stoke the fire box. We run the house at a reasonable temperature and we are always sensitive to effort required to heat. We are also aware at every stage of the next stage. By this I mean we do not rush and cut any tree, but rather the ones that can be dropped safely, handled with just the two of us and of the correct species to provide maximum heat for the problem. Of course this is not an option for everyone and I am not proposing that every heat problem can be solved with wood. What I am suggesting is that knowing the problem, respecting the options and deciding on a course of action that fits what the organization can support is the correct path.

The same goes for businesses and organizations. I tire quickly when speaking to business leaders who tell me their technology problems to nauseam but cannot express to me the business problem at all. This is tantamount to listening to an electrician telling me his hammer is broken but he cannot express to me why the house has no power.

The same is true when I see accountants using spreadsheet to send text documentation to someone. It amazes me that it can be done when a word processor would have been better. In most cases the accountant is not willing to learn a new tool and is forcing everyone to adjust. This is another form of disrespect.

The current attitude of waste and to throw more technology at problems is only creating bigger issues and forcing the real craftspeople to shake their heads in disgust. I have a saying “those who think they know really annoy the ones who do”, applies here.

Let business do what they are in business for and let technology in all its flavors support that business as a supporting actor and trusted advisor.

Have fun and be safe.

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