RESEARCH
  • Managing people

The Return of Craft Work

New research shows how ‘craft’ as a way of work organization can offer solutions to today’s workplace challenges

 

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In a working world increasingly enabled by AI and robotic technologies, where younger workers are repeatedly reported to be seeking greater meaning in their work, ‘craft’ seems to have had a resurgence as an alternative approach to work and organization.

A recent paper from a team of researchers led by Jochem Kroezen of the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School explains how craft—rendered obsolete during the Industrial Age by the compartmentalization of work—is making a comeback, influencing the making of products, services and even decisions. The study suggests that taking a closer look at the concept of craft and its nuances can lead to innovative solutions to the problems of today.

By moving beyond the old dichotomy of historic craft vs. modern industrial age work, the researchers reveal opportunities for alternative ways of working directly relevant to the 21st century workplace. One example is that by instilling a craft approach—emphasizing and celebrating the mastery of skills, for example, or encouraging experimentation—manager’s can provide meaning to people’s work, inspiring their engagement and dedication.

Another example addresses the 21st century workplace concerns around the continuing encroachment of machines and AI into human work. Here the ‘technical craft’ and ‘creative craft’ configurations described in the paper offer lessons in positioning machines—even artificially intelligent machines—not as enemies but enablers who can serve humans better than mechanical machines of the past.

Kroezen and his colleagues developed five configurations of craft that represent alternative ways to organize work and address pressures in the contemporary workplace. These five configurations emerged from a detailed understanding of how craft differs from work organized along industrial age parameters.

The craft approach emphasizes human skills, including a mastery of technique and the ability to use multiple skills to control the making process from start to finish and requires what the researchers call ‘embodied expertise’—practical, tacit and contextual knowledge. In contrast, human skills in the industrial context are commoditized as work is sliced up into specific tasks. In addition, dedication to one’s trade, respect of communal norms and the desire to experiment or ‘tinker’, are all highly valued in the craft approach, but are devalued in the industrial context where control and structure in order to ensure efficiency and consistency are prioritized.

The first two configurations of craft presented in the research are:

  • Traditional Craft, which values mastery, all-roundedness and embodied expertise, as well as dedication and communality.
  • Industrial Craft, where craft skills are pushed aside to let machines take over whenever possible.

The researchers expand beyond the traditional dichotomy of craft and industry by presenting three contemporary configurations of craft represented in the 21st century world of work.

  • Technical Craft, which refers to technical excellence in making. Mechanization becomes a tool at the service of humans, rather than an opponent. Mastery, all-roundedness, and embodied expertise are all represented, except that they include technical skills rather than the manual skills of the past. The acquisition of technical skills and formal qualifications alter the traditional craft attitudes somewhat: there is a sense of community but also competition with other experts.
  • Pure Craft is a deliberate anti-industrial approach that aspires to recreate the ‘pure’ craft skills and attitudes of the past. Adherents pursue extreme mastery of skills—a commitment shared within the community of other craft purists. The historical nature of the craft also requires an attitude of experimentation and exploration to adapt the old methods to modern times.
  • Creative Craft is perhaps the most familiar of the contemporary configurations, as one imagines the human beings engaged in creative making. As with Technical Craft, Creative Craft embraces technology and mechanization as tools for creativity. 

The researchers present craft, not as an obsolete form, but as a timeless approach to work that prioritizes human engagement over machine control. They identify the distinct work skills and attitudes that are typically associated with craft, and illustrate how an attention to these could be used as a way to understand alternative approaches to work in an era, increasingly dominated by machine technology, where the workforce has too often been shown to be disengaged.

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Access the full research report: Configurations of Craft: Alternative Models of Organizing Work’. Jochem Kroezen, Davide Ravasi, Innan Sasaki, Monika Zebrowska and Roy Suddaby. Academic of Management Annals (March 2021).

Profiles of the researchers:
Jochem Kroezen, University of Cambridge Judge Business School

Davide Ravasi, University College London School of Management

Innan Sasak, University of Warwick Business School

Monika Żebrowska, University of Cambridge Judge Business School

Roy Suddaby, University of Victoria, Gustavson School of Business


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