Innovation · June 13, 2022

Tools of knowledge workers – Part 1

Imagine this: your washing machine went faulty, you filed a complaint and a technician comes to repair it. He fiddles with the controls for a minute as if diagnosing the problem, then immediately reaches into one of his pocket and pulls out a spoon.

You wonder – what is the spoon for? But before you have a chance to ask, he begin unscrewing the machine’s cover with the pointed end of the spoon!

Let me ask you this: at this point, how much confidence do you have in this guy’s skills?

Pretty much zero, right?

But why?

Let me be clear – it is possible to open screws with a spoon. I have tried it. It is not as easy, but you can actually remove and put back screws with the pointed end of a (suitable) spoon.

Now back to our question: if it is technically possible to achieve the same result with a spoon as with a screwdriver, then why would we frown up on a technician who actually uses it?

The answer should be obvious: a spoon is not a professional tool adapted for doing this. If you use it for this purpose, you would spend a lot of time and energy to get it to work. It causes friction. It wastes your efforts. It can also bring harm.

Professionals need specialized tools

The bottom line is: professionals should use proper tools. An electrician should not be cutting wires with a pair of scissors and a surgeon should not be using a kitchen knife to perform surgeries.

Every longstanding profession has developed its own set of specialized tools. Potters, carpenters, electricians, plumbers – all have their own tool-kits.

There are some tools are used across professions, but even then they may take different forms to match the specific requirement of each profession. A blacksmith’s hammer is much different from that of a carpenter. And both of those hammers are different from one a fitter would use.

Such tools don’t have no obligation to be versatile. They may useful in getting just one thing done. But they must do that well. They must blend seamlessly with their users’ actions and must not get in the way.

To the professionals, well-designed tools feel almost like an extension of their selves.

Now think about the tools that you use in your line of work. Can you say that they feel like the extension of your mind or body? Or do you struggle every day to get them to work?

The fact is that many professions, particularly those originated in last few decades, greatly lack specialized tools.

Many professions lack proper tools

In 2014 I joined GreyB and began my journey in the IP industry. At that time, we hardly had any specialized tools.

As a patent analyst, my primary tools were: spreadsheets and patent databases. I had to sift through and manage a lot of patent-realted information but these tools weren’t adapted for it.

As a result, analysts adapted their workflows in accordance with the tools that were available, instead of the other way round. This caused many inefficiencies. For example, inserting, maintaining, and searching patent data in spreadsheets is a very slow process.

Over the next few years, out of need, we created some software tools on our own. Many of them are still heavily used. We still haven’t reached utopia though and brainstorming on tools never stops at GreyB.

The point is not that the IP industry lacks proper tools. It’s just an example. The problem is not specific to a few industries either. This is the story of all knowledge workers.

If you deal primarily with knowledge, think about what are your primary tools? And do they significantly enhance your capabilities?

At a high level, knowledge workers need to do 3 things: ingest, process, and create useful information. To be effective in their roles, they must doing these 3 three things effectively.

But the reality is that, except for a small set of professions such as 3D designers, there are hardly any tools that actually help knowledge workers in significant ways. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you know of a tool that can help you think clearly?
  • Do you have a tool that helps you come up with ideas?
  • Which tool can help you go though vast amount of information quickly?
  • Is there a software on your computers that helps you present information creatively?

Most software tools available to knowledge workers simply store and retrieve information. They act like an an extension of your memory. Ideally, they should act as an extension of your brain.

So why is there a shortage of tools for knowledge workers and how to build those tools? I am going to talk about these questions in my next post. To get notified about it, make sure you are subscribed to this blog:

P.S. Cover Photo by Andrej LiĊĦakov on Unsplash