The more I speak with knowledge workers, the more I am left to ponder how they get their work done. What I hear is that they get their work done despite the tools (i.e. software) assigned to them, that they conspire to create workarounds, and that they sometimes have to ignore entire sections of a project due to software inadequacies. In other words, they tell me their work environment stinks (simply doesn't work/ is broken / is wholly inadequate).
Let's try and find out why this is the case.As much as I couldn't imagine my work environment without enterprise instant messaging, e-mail, collaboration tools, knowledge sharing tools, I recognize that not all is perfect.
Sometimes, something crashes; other times, messages are missed. But when I find a document I wasn't sure I could even locate, I stop and wonder at how well the system performed.
Despite the weaknesses of these systems, they are still incredible tools and I couldn't imagine work without them. In spite of some design flaws and a user interfaces that could always stand improvement, they keep us going.
Alan Cooper, in The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, describes a concept he calls the "Dancing Bear." In his words, discussing his car's keyless entry system as an example: "In spite of its weak and clumsy design, it is still a wonderful thing. It's like the fellow who leads a huge bear on a chain into the town square and, for a small donation, will make the bear dance. The townspeople gather to see the wondrous sight as the massive, lumbering beast shambles and shuffles from paw to paw. The bear is really a terrible dancer, and the wonder isn't that the bear dances well but that the bear dances at all." In short, a dancing bear is a product that is interesting and useful not because it works particularly well, but because it works at all. When I read this, I thought of several recent smartphones I tested.
The wonder isn't that our tools work well, but rather than they work at all. We still have a fairly fragile environment. "Did you get the e-mail I sent you?" "I lost the document I was working on." "Can you help me search for..."
Many of the tools we use are what Cooper calls Dancing Bearware. But the bear is still a terrible dancer. We'll continue the discussion next week but in the meantime, I can tell you that the solution is NOT to give the bear dancing lessons.
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