Toolism – 5 management tools we rely on that are past their sell by date
Unlike the food we buy in the shops which come with Sell by, Use by and Best before dates, the management tools we use come with no such context or advice. We believe the hype with which they are sold to us.
What do Human Resources, Change Management, Learning & Development and Consulting have in common? All professionals in this arena rely on tools or processes. Many of these tools and processes have been around for many years. We invest a lot of time and energy learning them. Often we have to get certified or accredited. Just because we used them once does it mean we should continue to use them? Just because a pick & shovel was right for coal mining in years gone by does not mean they are the right tool to use now. They still work, but there are often better alternatives **.
What is toolism?
The term “toolism” was coined in 2013 by German economist Egmont Kakarot-Handtke who, in his article
‘Toolism! A Critique of Econophysics’, compares the latest breed of econophysicists, or toolists, as he calls them, and their grabbing of equations and tools from physics to the over typical Arnold Schwarzenegger role of being the hero who breaks into a gun store, grabs the most suitable device—such as the phase plasma rifle in 40 watt range—with the maximum fire power and thereafter relinquishes the enemy
In the business world where we look at business and people development, toolism can be regarded as the practitioner picking up a book, or the subject from a college lecture and applying that tool or method to the situation they find themselves in. Much like our archetypal hero mentioned above, just because a tool is available and on the surface “does the job” does not mean it’s the right thing to use.
The sledge hammer to crack a nut. This is not an appropriate tool for the job, but of course it did “do the job”.
Toolism – 5 Management tools we rely on
- Balanced scorecard
- Customer Relationship Management (CRM)
- Training courses in classrooms
Perhaps there are 100s of tools that are of the same ilk, and that may form the basis of several more articles in the future. Let’s start with these behemoths of the organizational development landscape.
Toolism – Balanced scorecard
The Balanced business scorecard (BBS) is a powerful and valuable tool. It is of particular value when the environment is stable and predictable. In an unstable and unpredictable environment the BBS can end up being a straight jacket. One that inhibits an organization from being agile, creative and innovative.
The balanced Business Scorecard is usually based on an annual cycle. The iterative approach of the learning loop is just not able to be agile enough for a dynamic and changing environment.
Toolism – Benchmarking
In theory comparing yourself against the best in class is a great thing to do. Not just to benchmark your company as a whole, but elements and functions from one sector to another. Great for manufacturing or mass processes. Benchmarking was at its height when the vast majority of employers were in the 1000s of employees. With large scale and slow changing environments and context, the ability to look outside was a valuable one.
According to the US census in 2008, the number of firms employing less than 500 people is more than the number of people employed in larger firms. Source (http://www.census.gov/econ/smallbus.html
This means that the ability to benchmark in a meaningful way is depreciating all the time.
If a company places its “improvement” in copying its competitors it will miss out on the start-ups. A great example of this is the success of Uber in the taxi/private hire space. If you spend your time copying, there is no need to innovate, losing competitive advantage. A strategy that was used by Toyota in the 1990s of letting competitors see its highly automated factories. They maintained a significant internal research & development function secret. Thus giving competitors something to copy and Toyota ahead.
Toolism – Competencies
Much like the BBS situation, great at one level for stable and predictable environments. These frameworks providing transparent career ladders and pathways. Much like the problems in an agile organization, many roles needed in businesses just don’t exist yet. The narrower the competency framework, and the more rigid it is the less agile the organization can be.
With firms getting smaller, they also have less resources to developing and maintaining such competency frameworks. If your competitors use these frameworks you will need to be innovative and reactive. Something that most competency approaches inhibit.
Toolism – Customer Relationship Management (CRM)
A CRM system or methodology has the purpose of simplifying and standardising processes. This can enable front line staff to provide a consistent and standardised approach and product to customers.
What happens typically with CRM approaches is the focus moves to the system. Where as in fact the true meaning of CRM is a philosophy or approach. The customer or the people on people interaction is supposed to be the focus. That is not the way these things traditionally go. Often businesses end up treating customers more like data then they do people.
“Dumbing down” the processes. Hiring people to drive the system, often at the minimum wage. Promoting people to be managers that focus on tasks and not customer relationships. The net result is a reduction in real customer satisfaction, but a standard and predictable approach.
Toolism – Training courses in classrooms
Traditionally a lot of formal adult learning in the workplace has taken place in the classroom. In the pasts a “sheep dip” approach was also used where legion after legion of employees would be subject to the same content in a classroom. These classroom experiences were often devoid of direct relevance to the work place. No variance for the participants or the context in which they operate. Spending time identifying needs of large numbers of people takes time. It takes time and skill to take those “needs” and develop a curriculum. Train the instructors or trainers, then have all your employees subject to the “wisdom” ready to change the way they do things. No ownership. No empowerment. A parental approach at best.
Since these days of the 1960s and 1970s, organizations have got smaller and smaller. The numbers of people that need the same training has reduced. Along with the need to train less people, has been the need for less people to design and deliver this training. In the last 1990s a movement towards coaching stared. Either dedicated “coaches” or managers would train one-on-one, usually in the work place. In the noughties with the stock market crash and global recession, firms were looking for ways to save money. Competent training people were often the “easy win”, for managers could now do what trainers did before. Of course this was great for training people in existing skills. But what about new needs?
Training classes, with high levels of structure produces rigid solutions. A difficult habit to change, and resistance to change content and be agile is commonplace. Training in the classroom has its place, but it is now the last choice strategy not the first choice strategy.
Are these 5 tools pass their sell by date?
It is difficult to say. The context in which these tools were created has changed. Once upon a time as a business you would be crazy not to use them. Now you need to have a concrete reason and business case to justify their use. They are typically rigid and long term focused. In a market place where true agility is one of the few survival strategies, use of these tools is not out of the question. Great care should be taken in their deployment.
As professionals, these and many others tools have been at the heard of our personal development. Many of us have built our careers on their deployment and use. It is easy to look at other organizations and ask why they are using typewriters rather than PCs in 2015.
Or the noisy, loud and slow dot matrix printers in many industries and situations. (http://www.techrepublic.com/blog/classics-rock/dot-matrix-printers-still-hammer-away-the-days/) and of course many doctors and legal firms still do not trust email and rely on fax!
Conclusions on toolism
Old tools have their place, just make sure you realise what you are using is an old tool, and that you know it is the right thing for your business
At the beginning of this piece I said “Just because a pick & shovel was right for coal mining in years gone by does not mean they are the right tool to use now. They still work, but there are often better alternatives.” – now this does not mean we need to follow the new and shiny new fads. But we do need to question the context of its birth and our intended use!
Stop the “toolism”, and let go of habits and ensure that the tool you are using is right for the context and intended purpose as a conscious decision, not one of habit