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Don’t assume technology is the answer

IT guy Mike Riversdale makes some common sense points on his website:
  • ... the chatter about “collaboration” one tends to hear now-a-days (and boy, isn’t there a lot) all centres around “on-line collaboration” … the use of the computer as the ultimate collaboration tool. What a load of plop.
  • I sat with a fellow “on-line collaboration / community wrangler” a while ago and we both used pen and paper as our collaboration tools of choice.
  • … when I talk with organisations about collaboration I always ask if they use whiteboards, meeting spaces or Scrum-type meetings to collaborate as they can be the most cost effective, most efficient and, let’s be honest, the easiest way to collaborate.
Mike ran an collaboration and information project for me. Most of his success came not from the technology deployed, but by good old fashioned simplicity and clarity in project management and communication. Mike’s comments reminded me of Toyota’s production management systems - coloured lights, white boards, marker pens and magnetic buttons. Yes, they use some sophisticated IT systems, but only when there’s no simpler alternative.

Here’s a good way to illustrate the point to your team (as deployed by one Dave Stringer in another change project I sponsored). Most families these days grab breakfast on the run, amid the chaos of finding the right clothes, making lunches, and packing the right books and gear for school and work. How does the idea appeal of having enough time in the morning so that you can sit down with all the family, eating a healthy and unrushed breakfast while talking to each other about the day ahead? What changes would you make to achieve that?

Invariably, people (especially engineers) start talking about home automation (especially in the bathroom, bedroom and kitchen), standardised meals, and other complexities. The low-tech answer: prepare for tomorrow before you go to bed and get up a little earlier. Obvious when you read it, but I can tell you that people fall into the technology trap nearly every time. (The one exception was one of my guys who had already made just those changes so he could always start the day talking with his wife and children while having a full English breakfast - he trained for his sport in the early evenings).

The aprocryphal NASA “space pen” vs Russian pencil story, while untrue, makes the valid point that we can waste much time, effort, and money on complex hi-tech solutions when simple, effective, inexpensive and quick solutions will do at least as well. As Mike says:
… when you next have a software vendor touting their latest and greatest collaboration software (which they may even sell as their “knowledge solution”, *shudder*) think about yellow stick it notes, white boards in prominent places and getting people to talk to each other.
Why pay for a pen when a pencil will do!

First posted 23 July 2008 - still relevant today