The new artisans of the network era

Are knowledge workers the new artisans of the network era? If so, can you call yourself a knowledge worker if you are not allowed to choose your own tools? How about managing your own learning?

toolsAn artisan is a skilled worker in a particular craft, using specialized processes, tools, and machinery. Artisans were the dominant producers of goods before the industrial era. Today, knowledge artisans of the network era are using the latest information and social tools in an interconnected economy. Look at a web start-up company and you will see it is filled with knowledge artisans, using their own tools and connecting to outside social networks to get work done. They can be programmers, designers, writers, or any other field requiring complex skills and creativity. One of their distinguishing characteristics is the ability to seek and share information with their networks in order to get work done. Knowledge artisans are connected workers.

Knowledge artisans are amplified versions of their pre-industrial counterparts. Augmented by technology, they rely on their networks and skills to solve complex problems and test new ideas. Small groups of highly productive knowledge artisans are capable of producing goods and services that used to take much larger teams and resources. In addition to redefining how work is done, knowledge artisans are creating new organizational structures and business models, such as virtual companies, crowd-sourced product development, and alternative currencies.

Knowledge artisans not only design the work, they can also do the work. It is not passed down an assembly line. They tolerate few, if any, silos between the product, the work, and the customer. 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 knowledge guilds was the open source community, which developed many of the communication tools and processes used by knowledge artisans today — distributed work, results-only work environments, blogs & wikis for sharing, agile programming, flattened hierarchies, working out loud, and much more.

Companies like Netflix understand that they are best served by people who take control of their own careers. Netflix is constantly looking for the best knowledge artisans in the industry. People who work hard, but produce just good enough results, will get let go. A master artisan strives for perfection. The 2009 presentation on Netflix culture makes their demand for the best workers abundantly clear. It’s the only way to deal with complexity.

netflix economic security

As more organizations engage with connected workers who have seen the new workplace structures, they will need to change some habits, like letting workers choose their own tools. Knowledge artisans are often more contractual, more independent and shorter-term than previous information age employees. Because of their more nomadic nature, artisanal workers will bring their own learning networks. Companies will need to accept this in order to get work done. Also, training departments must be ready to adapt to knowledge artisans by allowing them to  collaborate and connect with their external online networks. When the future of learning is the future of work, then learning support has to adapt to the new reality of an artisanal workforce. But it’s also worth noting that to be a successful knowledge artisan will take a lot more than just being a good employee.

19 Responses to “The new artisans of the network era”

  1. Ara Ohanian

    Harold, another insightful post, thank you! Increasingly we will bring our networks to our jobs as much as we bring our own skills and knowledge. In fact, in the future, with shorter contractual engagements (rather than lifetime employment) and a faster rate of change of knowledge, it could be argued that employers will hire for competence and knowledge and provide no explicit training. It may be that knowledge workers will be hired for their networks and their ability to get up to speed fast and to keep learning relentlessly.

  2. Julian Stodd

    Excellent article, too many insights to list but, for starters: “Look at a web start-up company and you will see it is filled with knowledge artisans, using their own tools and connecting to outside social networks to get work done” and contrast this with the usual command and control approach of organisations to standardise and repress creativity.

    Very insightful, thank you, Julian

  3. Luis Alberola

    Great insight Harold thanks for the share
    I think, behind the idéa of the knowledge artisan lurks the idéa of the “augmented” knowledge worker, if large corporations suceed in designing collaborative work environnements that outperform emerging cooperation models between knowledge artisans. And they are just beginning to work in that direction

  4. Urs Frei

    Interesting to see how you and some of the other thought leaders are using art and craft to define a quality of work:
    Guy Kawasaki coined ‘atrisanal publishing’ in his book APE – Author, Publisher, entrepreneur and Seth Godin suggesting to create art in his book The Icarus Deception.
    Here in Switzerland with a long history in developing craftsmanship in apprenticeships, it seems that the (theoretical) academic path is gaining more attention and credit despite a better employability for young talents after finishing a (practical) apprenticeship.
    Any suggestions as to what stories with your insights might help to influence our policy makers?

  5. Bill James-Wallace

    I agree Harold, if L&D provide “stories as evidence” the decision makers may listen but with a wan smile on their face (and attitude.) This is because formal, traditional training is their safety net for compliance and “skilling people up”. Mostly well intended, but limited in effectiveness. Organisations will need the burning platform to change in many cases… L&D need to provide the matches and the fuel…


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