A new paper explodes the concept of the craft organization of work as musty history, presenting different configurations of craft that can offer solutions to challenges faced in the 21st-century workplace.
Craft was long seen as a primitive form of work organization rendered obsolete by the Industrial Age. However, the concept of craft is making an energetic resurgence, influencing the making of products, services and even decisions. A new paper from a team of researchers led by Jochem Kroezen of the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School deftly explains the comeback of craft. Kroezen and his colleagues developed five configurations of craft that represent alternative ways to organize work and address pressures in the contemporary workplace. These five configurations emerged from a detailed understanding of how craft differs from work organized along industrial age parameters.
As the researchers explain, the craft approach emphasizes human skills, including a mastery of technique and the ability to use multiple skills to control the making process from start to finish (think of Stradivari crafting his violins). The craft approach also requires what the researchers call embodied expertise, which is expertise that not only stems from manual skills, but also from practical, tacit and contextual knowledge. In contrast, human skills in the industrial context are commoditized as work is sliced up into specific tasks.
In addition to skills, the attitudes of the craft approach are different, as well, from the industrial approach. Dedication to one’s trade, respect of communal norms and the desire to experiment or ‘tinker’, all highly valued in the craft approach, are devalued in the industrial context of work. The prevailing attitude, instead, is one of control and structure in order to ensure efficiency and consistency.
The first two configurations of craft presented in the research, Traditional Craft and Industrial Craft, closely reflect the fundamental differences just described.
For example, Traditional Craft values mastery, all-roundedness and embodied expertise, as well as dedication and communality. In the Industrial Craft configuration, craft skills are pushed aside to let machines take over whenever possible, which eventually tears down any sense of dedication or community.
The researchers expand beyond the traditional dichotomy of craft and industry by presenting three contemporary configurations of craft represented in the 21st-century world of work.
In Technical Craft, craft refers to technical excellence in making. Mechanization becomes a tool at the service of humans, rather than an opponent. Mastery, all-roundedness, and embodied expertise are all represented, except that they include technical skills rather than the manual skills of the past. The acquisition of technical skills and formal qualifications alter the traditional craft attitudes somewhat: there is a sense of community but also competition with other experts.
Pure Craft is a deliberate anti-industrial approach that aspires to recreate the “pure” craft skills and attitudes of the past. Adherents pursue extreme mastery of skills (often based on historical manuals), driven by a passionate commitment to the cause of their craft—a commitment shared within the community of other craft purists. The historical nature of the craft also requires an attitude of experimentation and exploration to adapt the old methods to modern times.
Creative Craft is perhaps the most familiar of the contemporaneous configurations, as one imagines the human beings engaged in creative making. As with Technical Craft, Creative Craft does not require the banishment of technology; instead, technology and mechanization are tools for creativity.
Organizing or coordinating mechanisms are varied for all of these configurations. Traditional Craft work was governed by a combination of community and hierarchy: the old medieval guilds represented a community but the strict apprenticeship system reflected a rigid hierarchy. Industrial Craft work is subject to the hierarchy of the management structure but also the influence of the markets. All three forces have a moderate influence on Technical Craft, which features greater autonomy thanks to semi-formal communities, niche markets, and participative management For Pure Craft, the community of fellow purists reigns while for Creative Craft, the community is important, but the market also plays a part.
By moving beyond the old dichotomy of historic craft vs. modern industrial age work, the researchers reveal opportunities for alternative ways of working directly relevant to the 21st-century workplace. For example, the meaning of work has become an important consideration for managers as a paycheck is no longer enough to motivate frontline employees and workers. Instilling a craft approach — emphasizing and celebrating the mastery of skills, for example, or encouraging experimentation — can inspire the dedication and community exhibited by makers in the craft trades.
Another 21st workplace concern is the continuing encroachment of AI into human work. The Technical Craft and Creative Craft configurations offer lessons in positioning machines — even artificially intelligent machines — not as enemies but enablers who can serve humans better than mechanical machines of the past.
These are just two examples of how taking a closer look at the concept of craft and its nuances as highlighted in this paper can lead to innovative solutions to the problems of today.
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