Do tools go extinct?
For a long time, all furniture was made with hand tools – saws, planes and hammers. At the time, that was all we had.
Over time, there has been a lot of innovation in woodworking tools. Now, instead of using a hand plane, if you’re doing average woodwork, you use an electric planer. It’s faster, and it’s usually more accurate. So if you’re doing average work, it’s much less expensive, and more convenient, to use the new tools. Most modern wood furniture is made with power tools.
But what about the old tools? Well, today, the people that use handplanes don’t use them to do average work – they use it to do fine woodworking. The old tools are still around, but they are put to a different use.
Kevin Kelly says that no tool ever goes extinct, which is probably true. He argues:
With very few exceptions, technologies don’t die. In this way they differ from biological species, which in the long-term inevitably do go extinct. Technologies are idea-based, and culture is their memory. They can be resurrected if forgotten, and can be recorded (by increasingly better means) so that they won’t be overlooked. Technologies are forever.
Even though cars put the horse and buggy out of business, you can still buy craftsman-level buggy whips. So two things happen – the old tools are used in new ways, or they persist in other locations. Kelly says:
A technique or artifact may be rare in the developed world but quite common in the developing world. For instance, Burma is full of ox-cart technology; basketry is ubiquitous in most of Africa; hand spinning still thriving in Bolivia. A technology may be enthusiastically embraced by a heritage-based minority in modern society, if only for traditional satisfaction. Consider the traditional ways of the Amish, or modern tribal communities. Often old technology is obsolete, that is, it is not very ubiquitous or second rate, but it still may be in small-time use, as many old-fashioned ways are.
The tool trap
There is a trap with tools. They work very well in a particular setting, but when the environment changes, if you keep trying to use the same tool in the same way, you can go out of business. Here is how Seth Godin describes it:
One study found that when confronted with a patient with back pain, surgeons prescribed surgery, physical therapists thought that therapy was indicated and yes, acupuncturists were sure needles were the answer. Across the entire universe of patients, the single largest indicator of treatment wasn’t symptoms or patient background, it was the background of the doctor.
When the market changes, you may be seeing all the new opportunities and problems the wrong way because of the solutions you’re used to. The reason so many organizations have trouble using social media is that they are using precisely the wrong hammer. And odds are, they will continue to do so until their organization fails. PR firms try to use the new tools to send press releases, because, you guessed it, that’s their hammer.
The best way to find the right tool for the job is to learn to be good at switching hammers.
I think that’s half right. The important point is that when we need a new tool, if we keep using our old one, we will fail. So one solution is to learn how to switch hammers. The other solution is to find a new way to use our existing tool.
Changing environments create innovation opportunities
As markets change, innovation opportunities are abundant.
Last week I wrote a bit about this in relation to higher education and the growth of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). You can see the tool problem at work here.
For years, the hammer for academics was the lecture. That was the way we delivered ideas to people. So in many MOOCs, people are trying to simply duplicate their classroom delivery online. They’re using the same tool in the new context. This approach will fail.
There are two possible responses. One is to build a skill with a new tool. The MOOCs that succeed over time will not look like a university lecture theatre that has just been transferred online – it will be something completely different. We don’t know what that tool will look like yet. In this option, we need to innovate the tool.
The other response is to get really good with the old tools, and turn it into a craft. As we do our annual collaboration with the Wharton Business School in their Global Consulting Practicum, it reminds me how powerful this can be. It is basically finding a new use for the old tool – here we are innovating the business model around the old tool.
However, if you follow this option, it means that the size of your potential market goes from really big, to pretty small. This can be hard for larger organisations to adapt to – they are built for size. That is why most universities are concentrating on MOOCs – because with those they can stay big.
And it’s not just education facing these choices. We’re seeing similar change in retailing, most media, and many other industries. The changing environment leads to innovation opportunities. You can innovate the tool that works in the new environment, or you can innovate the business model that supports the old tool. The one thing that you can’t do is try to keep thinking that the old solutions will work in exactly the same way in the new market.