Inspiration, Productivity, Wellness

Back To The Future: Artisan Work And The Return Of The Labour Theory Of Value, Pt. III; By Hung Lee


When we think of artisans we first imagine people who are brewers, craftsmen, bakers – workers of the analogue world. Artisan – from Italian artigiano is a 16th century term used to describe exactly these types of skilled craftsmen who provided specialist services to village and town. Yet when we look a little deeper into the nature of artisanal work, we find many elements that seem to describe aspirations of modern job design. 
Consider the following: 


1. Dedication to mastery
2. Ownership of the tools of manufacture
3. Personal connections with the (local) supply chain
4. Values over profit maximisation
5. Hand processing of final product
6. Imperfect, but unique and high standard products
7. Low volume, high quality output
8. Hostility to management and bureaucracy 
9. Minimal separation between home and work
10. Re-integration of stages of production
11. Authored or signed output
12. Master/Apprentice relationship rather than Manager/Employee
Each of these are characteristics which may typically describe the work of analogue artisans. They could just as easily be bullet points in a culture deck we’d build today for digital workers  in the 21st century. They seem especially resonant with the highly skilled, high tech workers, such as software designers and developers. 


Can the artisanal way of working be a viable operating model for the digital economy? 
The changing patterns of work seem to suggest so. The traditional default position of employment – full time, permanent, onsite – is increasingly being challenged by gig / freelancer economy, with pressure coming from both sides of the market. By companies who seek to reduce risk by outsourcing and contracting in services, and by the workers themselves, who embrace the flexibility, work life balance and sense of ownership that can come from running your own mini-business. The image of highly skilled, owner-managed digital craftsmen delivering customised output at a smaller yet higher quality scale would be familiar to anyone who has engaged a software designer or developer to build a web asset or MVP. 
We are also seeing these independent artisans coming together into coalitions – sometimes ad hoc, sometimes semi-permanent – to deliver all the services the customer might be looking for. These are different in structure to the old software house / agency as we have known them. The workers are not employees whose service is owned by a company but are independent owner-managers who operate as a ‘networked business’.

It is perhaps a fitting irony that digital workers – lineal descendents of the people who first drove workforce automation – may be the ones to redevelop the artisanal economy. Perhaps they also offer us all a roadmap for a future of human work in world increasingly threatened by workforce automation.