Knowledge artisans choose their tools

How can you be a knowledge worker if you’re not allowed to pick your own tools?

In the unattained summit of social business, Ton Zylstra writes:

So we talked about how corporate systems might integrate social media tools into sharepoint and ERP-software, but not about the notion that it is quickly becoming ridiculous that IT departments should be prescribing what tools professionals should use at all, and not just stick to managing and securing the data flowing through those tools. We let craftsmen and artisans pick the tools they think fit the task at hand and their personal skills best, but we still don’t allow our professionals in knowledge intensive environments to do so.

I like the term Knowledge Artisan to describe this growing field of economic activity. An artisan is a skilled worker in a particular craft, using specialized tools and machinery. Artisans were the dominant producers of goods before the Industrial era. Knowledge Artisans are retrieving the older artisan model and re-integrating previously separate skills. Knowledge Artisans not only design the work but they can do the work. It is not passed down the assembly line. Many integrate marketing, sales and customer service with their creations. To ensure that they stay current, they become members of various Guilds, known today as communities of practice or knowledge networks. One of the earliest guilds was the open source community which developed many of the communication tools and processes used by Knowledge Artisans today: distributed work (CSCW); results-oriented work (your code speaks for you); RSS, blogs, wikis, flattened hierarchies, etc.

One problem today is that it’s hard to be a Knowledge Artisan in a hierarchical organization that tells you what to do and which tools to use. No wonder the more experienced and adventurous are leaving and the younger skilled artisans are not joining the Command & Control Industrial Organization.

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12 Responses to “Knowledge artisans choose their tools”

  1. Gilbert Babin (Formative Assessment Guy)

    The concept of Artisan, like apprenticeship, are fundamental to the revolution we are witnessing. Marshall McCluhan had predicted a shift in this direction many years ago.

    I have been working on and off as a computer programmer for the past 25 years. Most professional computer programmers rarely get to chose their tools. If you are in a large organization these tools are pre-selected for you.

    When I got into programming I didn’t realize that with time this job is very “repetitive” in nature. You end up doing the same thing over and over again so many times that you feel nauseous. Having worked in parts manufacturing I can tell you that there is not much difference. At one point, both jobs require just about no creativity. Some computer programmer just have to upgrade their skills more often, but once the upgrade is done, its back to repetitious work.

    So, what I am getting at, is that many jobs that might look like “Knowledge Work” actually don’t have a very high Cranial index. The training periods for these jobs might be long but still in the end there is very little place for what I call “slow reflective intelligence”.

    It is sometimes hard to tell who is a knowledge worker and who is isn’t. But my guess is that most Artisans are actually knowledge workers and they select their tools. Others, like my mechanic, are “Thinking Workers” who constantly solve problems. They choose their tools.

    Most people in administrative functions manipulate knowledge but themselves are not knowledge workers and don’t control their tools.

    The Artisan concept will play a big role in a knowledge economy. Would love to see discussions that lead to a better understanding of the Artisan concept.

    Gilbert

  2. Brett

    Another excellent article, Harold. Brings to mind an article Jim McGee wrote many years ago on “Knowledge Work as Craft.” I know these are ideas that you have been thinking about for quite a while, as have I, and the article pulls a lot of those ideas together into a coherent whole.

    Gilbert, if you haven’t read Seth Godin’s latest, Linchpin, I recommend you check it out. In that book, he addresses basically the issue you bring up, the question of “factory workers” (exemplified in the programming jobs you mention) vs. artists.

  3. Jon Husband

    The concept of Artisan, like apprenticeship, are fundamental to the revolution we are witnessing. Marshall McCluhan had predicted a shift in this direction many years ago.

    [ Snip ... ]
    .
    The Artisan concept will play a big role in a knowledge economy. Would love to see discussions that lead to a better understanding of the Artisan concept.

    Indeed …

    Brings to mind an article Jim McGee wrote many years ago on “Knowledge Work as Craft.”

    Indeed * 2

  4. Gilbert Babin (Formative Assessment Guy)

    Ok. Found the article. The article focuses mainly on “Visibility” and the long term importance of visibility.

    http://www.mcgeesmusings.net/stories/2002/03/21/KnowledgeWorkAsCraft.html

    “One thing that differentiates knowledge work today from other craft work is that, except for final product, knowledge work is essentially invisible.”

    The following sentence is interesting.

    “As craft work, knowledge work fits more into apprenticeship learning models than in conventional training approaches. ”

    It would be interesting if someone could create a scale for different types of work and establish some kind of “Knowledge Work” index. If a job is suited for apprenticeship can we conclude that is knowledge work.

  5. Bill Bennett

    I wouldn’t go as far as to say not allowing knowledge workers to install, say, Tweetdeck, on their computers is a reason why large firms have difficulty competing with smaller outfits. But I think it is indicative of the mentality that makes them uncompetitive.

    I worked in a business that was acquired by a large corporation with a command and control mindset. Overnight we went from a laissez faire approach to desktop computers and software, to centrally dictated tools. Within a year the business revenue halved and the entire management team decamped.

    It wasn’t the lack of software choices that did the damage, it was the lack of choice period. Managers and skilled staff were no longer able to make decisions about any aspect of their work.

    In short, not allowing knowledge artisans to choose their tools is indicative of a bigger – and more serious problem.

  6. Brett

    @Gilbert: I took a stab at something like that a while back, and I think I’ll go back and update it based on the current discussion. (That original article was based, in part, on an earlier post from Harold.)

    @Bill: The situation Harold brings up, and even more so the experience you had, is something that Dan Pink discusses at length in his latest book, Drive. “Autonomy” is one of the key aspects of what knowledge (or concept) workers today expect, the other two being “Mastery” and “Purpose.” It is definitely worth a read, if you haven’t already.

  7. Gilbert Babin (Formative Assessment Guy)

    To come back to Harold’s question, “How can you be a knowledge worker if you’re not allowed to pick your own tools?”.

    My sarcastic..lol..answer to this is that if you aren’t currently choosing your tools you probably are not a Knowledge Artisan.

    But in reality,unless you are production line worker, you are probably “choosing your tools” for certain things and every job is made up of a bunch of tasks each differing in “work type” or “level of complexity”. It is a question of mix.

    I think that those who want to choose their tools should strive to become knowledge artisans.

    But then, true artisans don’t choose their tools, they create them.

    Gilbert

  8. Brett

    Harold,

    I have an extra copy of Drive I’d be happy to send. Just let me know and I’ll drop it in the mail.