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The topics discussed here grow out of the bread-and-butter issues that confront my consulting and software clients on a daily basis. We'll talk about prosaic stuff like Membership Management, Meetings and Events Management and Fundraising, broader ideas like security and software project management, and the social, cultural, and organizational issues that impact IT decision-making.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Using the right tool

I muse about the issue of problem solving from time to time: in my work, it's clear to me that some users of technology are good problem solvers and some just aren't. But I have had little success breaking out the skillsets required to be a good general problem solver. I made some progress on this the other day after my friend Gilles attacked my old sofa-bed with his chain saw.

I'd arranged for the city's bulk trash pickup to collect the ancient sagging mildewed thing the next morning, but first I had to get it out of the basement - a task that would be greatly simplified if I could take the bed apart. After failing repeatedly on my own, I called in Gilles, who solved the problem in minutes once he fired up the saw.

I what did I learn? That effective problem solving goes beyond some abstract analytic skill. We agreed on the analysis: the thing was too big to get through the basement without tedious relocation of all the junk we'd dragged down there since the sofa bed had its debut. And the fasteners holding it together were too many and too tight to remove adequately. What I lacked was enough familiarity with the available toolset to select the chainsaw. I knew the goal was to rend the couch into smaller pieces, but I failed to even think of the proper tool!

I often see users stymied because they are not familar with the tools at their disposal - tools which might help either with analysis of a problem, or its solution. The "computer guy" at one of our non-profit clients calls: he's asked everyone to get out of the database so he can do some maintenance, but someone still has a file open. He's spent an hour calling his users, trying to figure out who it is. Do I have any advice? Sure. How about opening the database control center and terminating all users? Oh, I never think of going there. Your workbench is full of powerful tools, but you've got to be like Gilles. You've got to be familar with them and know when to use them. They need to just spring to mind, the way a hammer comes to mind when you're confronted by a nail.

So what did I learn about teaching pc and network problem solving to users? That a "Guide to ten software power tools you should be familar with" is a better start than a focus on sharpening your analytic skills. And it will make a good series of blog entries too!

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