Disrupted Employment – the Return of the Craftsman

The advent of the digital craftsman – why business needs to return to craftsmanship.

Guest article by Alan Moore, author of No Straight Lines

There are two parts to this essay, the first is why businesses need to incorporate the practice of craftsmanship into their business, second is why the economy of craftsmanship is returning.

Use the word ‘craft’ and most people will think folksy, potting, woodcraft, quaint. Johnny Ive’s team at Apple and the animators at Pixar are all master craftsmen and craftswomen. Pixar also demonstrates what an open learning culture consistently delivers – outstanding products (they are worth a few quid), LEGO is a €1bn+ company, as is airbnb valued at $5bn. All successful by constantly crafting their business models and marketing, while focusing relentlessly on creating exceptional experiences for their customers.

Digital Craftsman
Front cover of the “Artisans numériques“ e-book. © DR

The business that knows how to craft, knows how to encourage craftsmanship – knows how to create value organically rather than leaning on the expensive and risky M&A crutch or the efficiency consultants. The businesses that embrace craftsmanship are the ones with higher valuations, possessing resilient revenues. They are the ones that work with optimism, and who dedicate themselves to creating products and services that uplift their customers experience of the world in large and small ways. And, in so doing, the profits take care of themselves. Craftsmanship is about the creative engineering of a business from the inside.

Craftsmanship is the means by which businesses can reinvent themselves, redesign themselves and create a better future by creating beautiful customer experiences.

So what is Craftsmanship? The craftsman represents the special human condition of being ‘engaged’, and the trinity of creativity – the blended application of the hand the heart and the mind. Hephaestus was the Greek god presiding over the craftsman, the bringer of peace and the maker of civilisation. More than a technician, the civilising craftsman has used his tools for a collective good, to create universal value. It was through the spirit of the Enlightenment that the craftsman brought forward a huge surge of social and creative innovation that made the lot of ordinary humans better. Something that our economies are in desperate need of today.

The craftsman questions why he makes things; he must evaluate the energy, effort and time that will consume him in his craft and the final act of creation – is he doing good? Is he solving a real problem and offering up something better? These questions must weigh constantly on his mind. The craftsman is always in beta. His mind must be open to new ideas, techniques, tools and processes; to close his mind to the new, or new ways of doing things, is the greatest risk he will take. The craftsman is unapologetic about wanting to make beautiful things, because he knows creating beauty is fundamental. Beauty is great work resolved, and great beauty endures.

The curious mind is the wellspring of creativity. The ability to bring two dissimilar things closely together and recognise a pattern, or a new possibility, is the true act of creation; airbnb, or the fusion of medical knowledge and computing are two real life examples. The craftsman must combine technique and expression so that he is also able to act intuitively. This can only happen when he possesses deep or what is called implicit knowledge. Rather than acting only upon empirical information, the craftsman’s ultimate act is one of unique expression which can only be delivered through the mastery of these skills.

Exploration is a key practice of craftsmanship; the ability to remain curious and explore is a part of play and playfulness and in that exploration some things just won’t work out. Providing the opportunity to constantly explore, learn, move on and improve is how the practice of craftsmanship has enabled Pixar to become so successful. With room for reflection, deliberation, conversation, trying stuff out – unique knowledge and insights emerge. Where people see no connection, no pattern, no new pathways, only chaos, the craftsman sees what others don’t, which he can then deconstruct into steps that will lead him successfully to achieving his goal. We need to ask, ‘What do you see?’ and ‘What do I see?’ as we seek better answers to difficult questions. Learning to see what others don’t comes from insight – only made through discovery.

Co-founder of Pixar Ed Catmull said, ‘the greatest enemy of creative success is the attempt to fortify against failure’. If you want to create the future, the new, the better, you have to always go beyond the possible to get there. To do that you are going to make some glorious mistakes, graze your knees, and feel a little downhearted. But this is the process we all go through to get to creating the truly valuable and original.

Craftsmanship allows new innovative forms to be created that can dramatically reduce start-up costs, running costs and wastage, and dramatically improve the lives of those that these forms, products or services touch. Think – vertical farming, cradle to cradle businesses, Tesla – these all point to high performance business models. Craftsmanship enjoys good questions such as, how can you reduce your inventory from 20 to 6 days? How can you design cars 5 times faster at 100 times less the capital costs? How can you redesign patient care to dramatically reduce wrong diagnoses, and over prescription of drugs?

The changes in our economy are structural, disruptive digital technologies are mainstream, incumbency is not a defensive position. Business shouldn’t adopt a state that seeks incremental change within the existing paradigm they must create and craft their future. It is about recognising the opportunities for creating the new and having the courage and the conviction to blend new and old tools, processes and language together to evolve, fresh, novel and meaningful strategies and operational approaches. Everything we use is designed, right now we face many design challenges and that is why craftsmanship plays such a central role in what next looks like.

This is why we need to bring craftsmanship back into business to seek the altogether more interesting possibility – a higher order of effectiveness, revenues and profits.

Crafting a new pursuit of happiness

From an economic perspective, it is predicted that 140m knowledge worker jobs will be lost over the next few years to AI, the automation of tasks of one form or another, and, 3D printing. For quite some time, it has been predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving disruptively. We have already witnessed a vast structural change in jobs and the nature of work, and this is set only to continue. Technological progress has always shaped the nature of work, so work as we once knew it – the 9 to 5 will no longer be the norm as formal employment opportunities wither. Loukas Karabarbounis and Brent Neiman, economists at the University of Chicago, estimate that over 50% decline in U.S. economic output that’s paid out in wages, is the result of businesses replacing workers with computers and software. Oxford researchers have forecast that machines might be able to do half of all U.S. jobs within two decades. Perhaps we should be grateful?

This moment may well be our Enlightenment when social and economic need, dovetailing with technology, resulting in an extraordinary surge of creativity, delivering social transformation. There is on a global scale an explosion of entrepreneurialism – why?

The return of the Craftsman

The relationship to work and wellbeing has been well documented. It is said that modern work culture kills us, yet without meaningful work we lose our sense of self-worth, our sense of identity, our sense of community. The practice of Craftsmanship is both spiritually restorative and provides us with economic viability. The economy of Craftsmanship is based upon cultural production as self-expression, which is hugely beneficial to our spiritual, mental and material wellbeing. The required mastery of skills and tools also provides a greater sense of satisfaction and purpose in the world.

I see a yearning for a return to craftsmanship, to artisanal endeavor and perhaps a more balanced way of life. Across America, and throughout Europe we see people beginning this journey, some because they have to, and some, because they seek a more meaningful and authentic way of living. The Maker movement tooled with 3D printers, laser cutting and milling machines remind me of the Shakers and the Amish without the religion. Artisanal beers – I counted some 300 plus in a bar in Philadelphia recently, British makers of; culture, cheese, clothes, cutlery, gin, knives, come from all corners of our kingdom, yet they all touch and interface with a global community. It is a different type of scale – human.

Alan Moore on iDisruptedThe sharing economy as it has become known, is part and parcel of this craftsman’s economy, where trade in skills, assets, and knowledge will also become the norm. An economy that is an ecology, is life supporting.

As the speed of Fortune 500 companies that fail increases we witness a creative response that is transformative. Curiously this response will reconnect us to our deeper humanity, and wellbeing. We should celebrate the return of the almost forgotten art of craftsmanship, as it offers a richer alternative way of living.