Craftmanship, Industrialization and Knowledge-Based Work

FW TaylorUp until the nineteenth century, most people were engaged in agriculture; others learned a craft like carpentry. They were organized in small communities and worked together from sowing seeds to harvesting, milling, and baking. To be successful they needed to learn and master a specific craft that was passed from person to person, often within the same family. The real master of the community then decided to leave the comfort zone to explore things that no one dared to explore.  Most of the time, these exploratory ventures ended in failure. But sometimes, the adventurer would stumble upon something that opened new doors for them and eventually for future generations as well.

As late as 1870, 80% of Europe’s population worked in agriculture. In 2010, less than 0.8% of Europeans worked in farming.  This demonstrates an enormous productivity gain for farming. And then in the 18th and 19th centuries, a major change happened: manufacturing shifted from manual labor toward machine-based manufacturing. It started with the mechanization of the textile industries and the introduction of steam power. This also changed the organization of work, where people specialized in a particular phase of the work instead of getting involved in the whole process. By specializing in a specific time/phase-based work, Henry Ford was the first to increase productivity in car manufacturing by using assembly lines for mass production.

To make manufacturing as efficient as possible, managers were needed to oversee the whole process. It was during this era that the first management theories and business schools began teaching what Mary Parker Follett (1868-1993) termed the art of getting things done through people”.


Lesson Learned from Craftmanship & Industrialization

Craftsmanship is building on experience and can lead us in the right direction, but experience will only take us so far into uncharted territory. In these instances, we must take what we started with and rely on controlled methodologies and engineering tools. Engineering is the application of tools and methodologies to handle the unexplored.


Craftsmanship is critical to knowledge based work in terms of providing quality, whereas in industrialization, quantity was the primary measurement. Allan Cooper, author of “Running with the Inmates” and inventor of Visual Basic, said the following about craftsmanship:


Craftsmanship is all about quality – it’s all about getting it right, not to get it fast. It’s measured by quality, not speed. It’s a pure measurement, and a delightful one.”

Craftsmen do it over and over again until they get it right. In their training, they build things over and over so they get the experience they need to get it right.”, more info see.


I do not fully agree with Allan Cooper because good craftsmanship must strike a balance between quality and time/cost. This demonstrates the concept of personal competence but this also has a disadvantage.  I’d like to quote one of my favorite bloggers – Joel Spolsky – on his view on craftsmanship.  “Craftsmanship is, of course, incredibly expensive. The only way you can afford it is when you are developing software for a mass audience. Sorry, but internal HR applications developed at insurance companies are never going to reach this level of craftsmanship because there simply aren’t enough users to spread the extra cost out.”


A craftsman takes pride in his profession, his experience, and his tools. Because his performance is based on his personal competence, he prioritizes the mastery of his tools, upgrading them and improving his work methods in an evolutionary way. Craftsmen prioritize their continuous improvement and appreciate quality because they know that their product becomes more valuable when done the right way. They know that quick-fixes will rarely be successful in the long run, because that can require more work (and less profit to them) to remedy.

The most important lesson learned from industrialization was that deterministic goals and processes are better achieved by investing in structure capital (developing process / routines and establishing them). This especially applies to a process that is 10% design/analysis and 90% production. A changed requirement after the production phase has begun can be very expensive. Software developments of product and unique system aren’t like this design isn’t just a one thing you do before production is started.

For example, when building a bridge, you can’t consider adding a few new highway lanes when the bridge construction has started.  Complex software development isn’t a deterministic process and is therefore more of 50% design (where you figure out what to do and where to go) and 50% production. Following a plan is therefore not the ultimate solution it’s to be prepared and know you domain and tools so that new knowledge present itself you can take the opportunity.

Throughout history, success factors for work have changed and gone from individually mastered methods of efficiency and quality to a world where craftsmanship was learned and handed down from generation to generation. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the industrial revolution changed the key success factors into pre-defined processes that were mechanized, automated and as efficient as possible.


In a world that changes every day, differentiation and uniqueness come from transforming information into a product through creativity and knowledge. The most important considerations for knowledge-based companies are how good they are in getting the best information and then transforming that information into products or services, through their creativity and knowledge. But in a complex world where goals are uncertain and there is more of a need to explore possibilities, success is increasingly dependent on collaboration, creativity, and knowledge.