Too Many Tools in the Box

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"Bro, come on, man-give me the ball. Don't be a tool." Growing up in a lower middle-class suburb of Boston, I had my fair share of run-ins with bullies. At the local basketball court, they would attempt to steal my ball. I'd hold it above my head, praying that either my mother would call me in for dinner or "Macho Man" Randy Savage would magically appear to save me.

Years removed from that asphalt jungle, I still have no idea why those bullies would call me a "tool." Ironically, though, I'm buried in content that's housed in dozens of tools I use throughout the day. As a writer, a moleskin or Evernote should be the only tools of my trade, but I'm actually surrounded by-and interact with-more tools than I know what to do with.

On the morning I wrote this, I used 10: email, Evernote, GitHub, Slack, Google Docs, InDesign, text messaging, Basecamp, Excel, and (gulp!) Word. I use these tools interchangeably under the guise of organization. However, if I track back to my digital production schedule 10 years ago, InDesign, Excel, Word, and email were my only writing/communication tools. Even though the technology is streamlined, I'm using twice as many tools to accomplish the same core tasks that I did 10 years ago. Even more mind-boggling is that I don't question it. With every new tool added to my arsenal, I'm falsely convinced that it will simplify my workload.

Not too long ago, I had an idea for a talk I'm giving later this year. I wanted to make sure I captured the thought, so I fired up Evernote on my phone and jotted down my idea. Later that day, I had an email exchange with a colleague about it and then followed up on Slack. My colleague is not on Evernote, so I opened a Google doc where I wrote a longer-form synopsis that she could comment on. Over the course of several days, I worked on the idea, until I had to enter my submission via an online form. However, the formatting of the Google doc did not line up with the form, so I ported it to a Word file, where I formatted, spell-checked, and finalized my revision. I copied the information into multiple individual form fields, made a few last-second changes, and then clicked "send."

My colleague later approached me about that idea. She felt I should submit that same proposal to a similar conference but with a slightly different angle. The problem was that I had less than a day to rewrite and submit. Frantically, I searched Evernote, Slack, Google Docs, and Word for the latest version of my work. However, I had no recollection of where the "latest and greatest" was. These tools, billed as bastions of simplicity, were completely in the way. Only then did I realize that the latest version wasn't on anything I had; rather, it was lost in a long-gone submission form. Deflated, I settled in for a long night and tried to re-create something that should have been in one of the tools I had committed so much time and energy to.

My interaction with one colleague and a handful of tools used to carry out a single task is not that big of a deal. However, this same thing is occurring with nearly everyone in the business you serve-and in your own office-as we speak. Human resources professionals looking for the latest Code of Conduct draft, circulated among three stakeholders, surfaces multiple versions of a document that must be vetted, edited, and published.

The way we interact with our tools greatly impacts the pace of business. For every colleague who refuses to use Excel, there is another pushing the bounds of the latest cloud-based chat tool. Our inability to work together on a single platform not only causes wasteful, duplicate content, but a legacy of inboxes, servers, directories, and Dropboxes littered with content that we must manually sift through to determine its value.

Our charge as content professionals is not to create fewer tools-or eschew the ones we already rely on-but to realize the risk of so many disparate systems within our organization's culture. Just remember: It's not the tool that makes your enterprise succeed-it's how you implement it within your organization's ecosystem.