What is a craftsman? On some level, all of us - even those in the most advanced fields of ICT and industry 4.0 - are called upon to deal with the spirit even more than the practice of craftsmanship.
Richard Sennett, sociologist of the London School of Economics and author of many important books on labour and the transformations of modern capitalism, is in no doubt. If we give the term “craftsman” the broader meaning of technical worker, then “craftsmanship is the desire to do a job well”. Indeed, that same desire impels us to do a job well “for its own sake”. “It is not enough to do something; it also has to be done well”.
Craftsmanship, therefore, can be summed up simply as taking care of what you do. “Advanced technology and its developments also reflect this technical work model,” says Sennett. But there is one problem on the horizon. “In their day to day work, people aspire to ‘do well’ and to be ‘good craftsmen’” – also of and in the digital world. And therein lies the rub, or rather the deep schism that divides global companies: on the one hand, there are the aspirations and actions driven by this desire, and on the other, the “corporate” practice of ignoring such aspirations.
Craftsmanship is a matter of bonds. Bonds of mutuality, learning, cooperation, collaboration: a continuous exchange of dialogue skills
According to Sennett, the social partners should make an effort to avoid that “anyone aspiring to be a good craftsman, in the theoretical sense of the term, should feel frustrated or misunderstood”. This happens when, at the corporate level, “the true meaning of craftsmanship is ignored, and the company does not set itself the aim of fostering a happy workplace”.
We are faced with a new vision of work, regarded as a whole and not as a set of categories. If we ignore this fact, and do not learn the lesson imparted - from the Renaissance to this very day - by the artisan tradition, then we will have to deal with the consequences. Which are that “commitment is emptied of its meaning, and workers turn to the private sphere, favouring a long-term mental projection towards a future that may never happen, rather than the here and now”. In other words, there is a clear schism between planning and execution, with an inevitable decline in work quality. Sennett had caught a glimpse of this danger in the 1980s, in his meaningfully entitled The Fall of Public Man.
As we turn to the private sphere, can craftsmanship be an antidote for us all? “Homo faber and homo sapiens, Man the Maker and Man the Thinker,” says Sennett, “are not split but united. In new professions, this becomes even clearer. We all have something to learn from the history of the spirit and practice of craftsmanship, in particular as regards the relationship between skills, learning and imagination”.
Craftsmanship is a matter of bonds. Bonds of mutuality, learning, cooperation, collaboration: a continuous exchange of what Sennett calls “dialogue skills”. In a world where expectations about labour quality are high and far from certain interpretations, such skills are of crucial importance. However, they have also been checkmated. By what? Sennett is clear on this point: “By the threat of competition. Competition replaces cooperation (a method of facing complexity) with frontal, two-way opposition (us/them). This reduces complexity, but favours feelings of resentment and rancour that spreads from the employment sphere to every other sphere of life”. Another threat comes from the process of deskilling, favoured by certain system mechanisms that, rather than helping companies to emerge from the crisis, project that crisis with all its conflicts. “The world of work should foster bonds, not break them down with resentment multipliers”.
We must restore dignity (and substance) to the world of work, in its entirety.
To this end, Sennett suggests a sort of work ethic based on having pride in one’s inherent and acquired qualities. An ethic rooted in doing things and working well, but also in “believing that, to avoid becoming mere repetition or imitation, skills must evolve. They must be given time, so as to allow the spirit and practice of craftsmanship to become deep-seated, inherent qualities”.
According to Sennett, we must restore dignity (and substance) to the world of work, in its entirety - from manual labour, which has been subjected over the decades to an ongoing, theoretical and practical process of deskilling, through to the new digital professions. Restoring meaning - and pride - to the art of doing is the key to ensuring a concrete future and a present with vision.