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?
An 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.
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.