(Or Why We should focus on principles-based training and governance instead of technical solutions.)

Once upon a time, someone gave me a strawberry slicer. “A what?” You ask?

Strawberry slicer: A hinged tool with blunt blades designed to cut small soft fruit into multiple pieces in one motion; the ultimate white elephant gift. As opposed to the multi-purpose tool with a single sharp blade that can be manipulated in a chopping motion to cut soft fruit into whatever-sized pieces you desire. Unlike the very versatile knife, it’s a single-purpose doohickey. Because I kind of know how to use a knife, that thing went straight to the bottom of the kitchen junk drawer, probably never to be used. Because, who on earth needs a strawberry slicer when they have a knife?

 If you’ve done much in the way of looking for basic tools for food preparation, or if you’ve accidentally turned the TV channel to a late-night infomercial, you’re probably somewhat aware that cooking is one of those things that can mystify people while being absolutely necessary to everyday functioning. This results in a market where people take advantage of that mystification to sell specific solutions to simple problems, like the strawberry slicer – a thingamabob so over-specific in its design that Wired Magazine’s Gadget Lab called it “a kitchen gadget so monumentally useless that it won’t even manage its own, self-assigned purpose”.

Cooking, like organizations utilizing data, is in an area where everyone has a tool to sell you to make your work easier. Technology and technological solutions are tools, just like kitchen gadgets. Any organization has to consider its finite resources before investing in new solutions. Some common considerations include: cost, required storage space, time and effort needed to maintain the tool, and whether you already have something that will do the job.

Space in the kitchen can be a very finite resource. The only reason I haven’t gotten rid of that strawberry slicer is that it’s tiny enough to sit nearly forgotten under the plastic wrap, rolling pin and stash of bags to be reused. (Well, that and it was a gift.) A KitchenAid food processor may be brilliant, but it’s not feasible for my kitchen’s finite resources and I have other tools that can do the job.

Understanding the principles behind what you need to do and gaining basic techniques and skills will take you a lot farther then buying all the job-specific tools. That principle-based knowledge is also essential to help you recognize when a specific tool will be a wonderful help, and what other issues it could cause further down the line. It will also help you recognize when a specific tool isn’t really fit for purpose, and what will work better.

 Sometimes a tool is just what you need and it makes working a lot easier. Sometimes tools need to be adapted to do precisely what you need them to do. Sometimes technological solutions are so ridiculously over specific they’re not really fit for their own purpose. They don’t even do what they’re supposed to do as well as a generic tool already in your organization – or your knife block.

 Tools enhance your ability to reach your goals, but they come second to knowledge. And you need knowledge – the understanding of basic principles and how to break down and analyse what problems you have – to develop the skills to evaluate and utilise the right tool for the right job. Additionally, knowledge and skills are tools in their own right.

I actually pulled my strawberry slicer out of the bottom of the drawer last week for the first time ever, because I hadn’t washed the dishes the night before, all my knives were dirty, I was half asleep, and my porridge needed fruit. It did what it was designed for well enough, but any time saved using it was lost cleaning it afterwards. And if I improved my knife skills (and was a bit better about keeping those knives clean), there wouldn’t have been any time saved to begin with. It isn’t wasting any of my resources sitting in the bottom of my drawer, but it’s pretty useless.

What are some data-focused “strawberry slicers” you’ve come across?