The metaphor ‘tool’ has gained wide currency in industry to describe not just physical artifacts but also managerial and organisational processes. The extent to which the metaphor is an appropriate one to describe such processes is a matter for debate. A physical tool is popularly thought of as something simple such as a hammer or a screwdriver. As a physical artifact a tool may be designed for a very specific use. For example, a screwdriver is not much use for any process other than screwing screws into materials or unscrewing them. A hammer, on the hand has more wider application, it can hammer nails into materials but can also be used to bang wood or metal into a required position, for denting materials and so on. However, its use as a tool is still largely confined to a ‘hitting’ process (depending on its specific design).
Other tools combined, ‘tools within tools’ such as a Swiss army knife, though it may still be referred to as a tool as a whole or it’s many included elements may also be referred to as tools within their own right.
This can create unclarity and confusion. For example one might refer to a Swiss army knife as a useful tool to aid hunting or camping. However, the can opener tool within the knife may be a useless tool for such an expedition if there are no cans involved! Thus the usefulness of a tool depends on its context and, when one wishes to understand accurately a tool’s use, it can be unhelpful to call an artefact, which comprises different tools within its design also, a ‘tool’. We would prefer to call the Swiss army knife a ‘configuration’ or ‘set’ of tools.
Secondly, a tool may be used in different ways in different contexts or by different users. For example, one user may bash a nail into a piece of wood with three short heavy bashes. Another may use a hundred small, careful bashes. Both may be successful, or one may be more successful than the other. The ‘way’ in which a tool is used for a particular result we wish to call a ‘technique’.
In management, the problem arises of confusion because the terms ‘tool’ and ‘technique’ are often used interchangeably without any clear distinction between them. Added to this, an entire organisational approach such as ‘benchmarking’ or ‘process reengineering’ may be referred to as a ‘useful tool’ alongside a very specific ‘tool’ such as cause and effect diagrams or brainstorming. It becomes very difficult to gain a clear picture of technology assessment and innovation issues when such terms are used in such indistinct ways.
Further to this, in physical terms, the use of many tools requires a highly developed level of skill in the user. A hammer can be a dangerous thing in the hands of an unskilled user! Not only can an unskilled user of a hammer potentially do damage to the materials being worked upon, he or she can also cause danger to him or herself through accident as well as causing potentially safety problems for colleagues in the vicinity of the process and for final customers of the process, through product failure.
Yet, in the realm of managerial or organisational ‘tools’ this is precisely what occurs on many occasions. Tools and techniques are adopted quickly and the skills required to use them (including change and time management, team working and communication skills) are either assumed as already present but are lacking, or are not considered at all. It may also be that such skills need to be developed or adapted in order to be able to use a particular tool or apply a particular technique.
It is not uncommon to find the phrase ‘tools and techniques’ in books and papers on technology management, quality management and change management. More useful is emerging the concept of processes, where the way a process is enacted can be referred to a ‘technique’. Tool focuses too much on physical manipulation. Technique focuses more on the ‘how’ than the ‘what’.
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