Of artisanship

July 11, 2014

A couple of years ago at the Hay Festival there was a debate on the relationship between art and craft.  The argument of Mary Midgley and others was that you can't call something art just because it is asserted as such. Instead art has to display evidence of craft to be understood as such.   Now I have always agreed with this, which is not of itself a conservative statement; Picasso for example was a craftsman, who having learnt that craft broke the rules to create something new.  

The artisan craftsman is something that we see in the professions of the modern age, although we are starting to loose it. The essence of a artisan is that they can adjust to context; modifying practice to meet necessity.  The London Taxi driver with the knowledge does the same without thinking about it in marked contrast to the map or sat-nav user.  I was talking with the kitchen designer this morning about some of the details of the project which is about to destroy the kitchen I built with my own hands twenty years ago.  In several areas we have left what needs to be done to be determined when more work has been done.  I did the same when I built it, adjusting as patterns became clear.  We have the main plan ready which involves removing a window to allow movement of the new Aga and also units in and out as the maze from our back door to the kitchen will not permit it.  It has the various units defined so they can be crafted over the next few weeks along with the main utilities.  But there is a lot left to do as we start to see the ways things fall out.

General Practitioners (family doctors for those not familiar with the term) used to fall into this bracket, they were not governed by statistics but adjusted to a context they knew intimately.  Now they are heavily constrained by guidelines designed for the centre of the bell curve.  If you are average you will get the right treatment, but if you sit in the tail its a lottery.   Bank Managers were the same, they knew you and knew your family and could make a decision on a loan without the need for the form filling and computer checks that prevent effective customer service in the modern day and age.  The same happens in software design with too much planning preventing resilient solutions been developed in the immediate context of user needs.  What we have in all those cases is a degree of freedoms of action and, most critically, a trust in human judgement.  Something that in an age obsessed with averages and a desire for uniformity and predictability is increasingly rare.  

Now this is a serious issue for all organisations.  As we move more and more towards a standardised model we loose adaptability and in consequence resilience, the capacity to change in the light of changed and changing circumstance.  Consistency may seem attractive and in some cases it is, but it's a very bad universal. 


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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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