An artisan (craftsperson) is a skilled manual worker in a particular craft, using specialized tools and machinery. Artisans were the dominant producers of goods before the Industrial Revolution. ABC Co. are the Artisans of the post-Industrial era, retrieving old world care and attention to detail, but using the latest tools and processes. To ensure that we stay current, we are members of various Open Source Guilds, such as the Drupal development community. —ABC Co. Business Plan 2005 (PDF)
I wrote the ABC Co. business plan for a small company with several years of development experience that had embraced open source software as a way to reduce customer costs, ensure long-term stability of their software, and focus on what they did best — custom development. As Ton Zylstra remarked in 2010, too often skilled workers are treated like replaceable cogs using standard, employer-provided tools.
“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.” —The Unattained
An artisan is a skilled worker in a particular craft, using specialized tools and machinery. 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 communities of practice or knowledge networks. One of the earliest of these communities online was for open source software which also developed many of the communication tools and processes used by knowledge artisans today — distributed work, results-oriented work (your code speaks for you), RSS, blogs, wikis, agile development, flattened hierarchies, etc.
Keeping knowledge artisans is becoming a major challenge for companies and if they are not careful they will lose their best workers, as we are seeing at Twitter, the epitome of a autocratic managerial mindset. Jane McConnell recommends that it’s much better to have a ‘gig mindset‘.
“The first big obstacle to building a gig mindset culture is old-school leadership, anchored in hierarchy and command-and-control methods. A second, equally serious barrier which is in fact related to the first, is work practices. Although it is increasingly common today for people to self-manage their work, this has limited impact beyond the individual. They are not able to have a broader, change-inducing role because they are rarely solicited to give input to business goals and strategic plans. Above all, they are not encouraged to question status quo and propose radically new ideas.” —Jane McConnell
Knowledge intensive workplaces demand cooperative learning in addition to collaborative work. This requires structural changes in hierarchy and control systems. It also means changing the employment relationship where becoming a successful knowledge artisan will take a lot more than just being a good employee. A gig mindset is a change in the status quo. While creating a status quo is more difficult than maintaining an existing one the time may be right for systemic change in how work gets done.
Commenting on the implosion of Twitter, John Scalzi asks, “why should we bring back that artisan, hand-crafted Web?” and answers, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a site that’s not run by an amoral billionaire chaos engine, or algorithmically designed to keep you doomscrolling in a state of fear and anger, or is essentially spyware for governments and/or corporations?”
“Build a better Web. An artisan Web. A handcrafted Web. Take the time to get people used to it. We’ll all benefit from it. We just have to decide to do it.” —How to weave the artisan web