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Artisans. Learning is a responsibility.

Anatomy art by Leonardo Da Vinci. 1492

We are born learners. From our first breath and arguably before. We are taking in our surroundings and adapting to them in order to survive and develop. We outsource that capability at our peril.

The moment we cede our authority to employers and consultants or believe certificates are proof of our ability to learn we start to lose our way. Learning is an attitude, and there are no certificates for that.

I think we can learn from the Workshops and Ateliers that existed, before the industrial revolution turned scale into a self perpetuating goal. When the focus was on the work, not the output learning was organised differently. Apprentices worked for Masters (effectively the business owner) for seven years, normally paid for by their parents, until they qualified as Journeymen (it was at that time always men) through demonstrating their work to their community. That enabled them to travel and find work elsewhere to develop their craft until, if they chose to, they qualiified as Masters, again through demonstrating their work to the community which enabled them to start their own workshops and take on apprentices.

There is a key passage in page 63 of Richard Sennett’s book “Craftsman” on this topic:

“The Master was enjoined by a religious oath that no father ever had to swear in words, that of improving the skills of his charges. This contract, notes the historian S.R. Epstein protected apprentices against “the opportunism of their masters. They were otherwise liable to be exploited as cheap labour” without any benefit to themselves”

We’ve lost that along the way in the vast majority of businesses. It’s more than a shame. What I wonder would our economy look like if employers were bound to improve the skills of those who worked for them as a matter of course, rather than have a minumum feasible wage mentality?

There is an artisan living inside each one of us, and it can only fruit if it is enabled within a community where each is obligated to the other’s interest as well as their own. A mutually reinforcing and sustainable system, rather than one more akin to strip mining. Much as we talk about “learning organisations” the emphasis is still on the organisation. People, human beings, learn and organise themselves. It really is the people who matter. Organisations are a vehicle, though it’s easy to forget that. Artisans are obligated to each other during their relationship, but not owned by anyone other than themselves.

In the end, the real measure of success of any organisation is the impact it has on sustaining its community. Profits are vital, though it’s what use they are put to that is the real test of a business. Artisans support each other to mutual benefit.

As we inevitably hand over routine learning to technology in every area of activity where it applies, we will have to learn how to add value and contribute in other areas. Technology will do amazing things, but it seems unlikely ever to be artisinal. The options for us to busk, to just get by will reduce. To thrive, we need to do work that matters and is recognised as such by those around us.

The soul and skill of an artisan is a fusion of intellect, intuition, emotion and lived experience, and their work is recognised and valued as part of a community who need and appreciate their work.

Maybe we’re heading towards a time when artisans return. That is something to aim for.

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About the Author

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Complexity and volatility create enormous opportunities for those willing to go beyond the boundaries of "business as usual" to explore the edges of their business. I am an entrepreneur, a coach, a creative thinker, and above all, an explorer of possibility.

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