Scattered craft beer grains, bottles, hops and a cask.

Timeless ‘craft’

27 April 2021

The article at a glance

The concept of ‘craft’ is often narrowly applied to describe nostalgic approaches to work. But a new study led at Cambridge Judge Business School instead suggests that craft is better understood as a timeless alternative approach to any type of work in this era of machine learning.

Category: Insight

The concept of ‘craft’ is often narrowly applied to describe nostalgic approaches to work. But a new study led at Cambridge Judge Business School instead suggests that craft is better understood as a timeless alternative approach to any type of work in this era of machine learning.

The concept of “craft” is often narrowly applied to describe traditional approaches to work or niche movements with a nostalgic yearning for a simpler past. Yet a new article in the journal Academy of Management Annals led at Cambridge Judge Business School instead presents craft as a more fundamental approach to any type of work – in contrast to mechanistic methods in our era of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Jochem Kroezen.
Dr Jochem Kroezen

The article’s lead author is Dr Jochem Kroezen, University Lecturer in International Business at Cambridge Judge, and co-authors include Monika Żebrowska, a PhD candidate in the school’s Strategy and International Business subject group.

“We propose a reconceptualisation of craft as a timeless approach to work that prioritises human engagement over machine control,” says the journal article, an interpretive review of 453 papers in 17 top management and organisation journals over the last century. While craft has “typically been equated with a primitive form of manufacturing”, it is now “increasingly being associated with alternative approaches to work and organisation in contemporary society” – as craft attaches importance to ‘human touch’ and individual judgment that are “lost with purely mechanical approaches to work.”

While there has been a notable revival of craft in specific sectors (the global boom in craft brewing being perhaps the best-known example), the review outlines how the general principles followed by craft brewers have much broader applicability and can be used to understand developments in any type of work – ranging from bespoke vehicle manufacturing, to software programming, to strategic leadership, to police work.

Yet despite such ubiquity, there has not been a dedicated theory to explain what distinguishes the “craft” approach to work. The new study therefore presents a framework that could be used as a “general theory for understanding alternative approaches to work against the backdrop of growing affordances of machine technology.”

“The notion of craft has always been used to describe forms of work that remain dependent on human engagement despite the availability of technology that can be used to disengage humans to achieve efficiencies,” says lead author Dr Jochem Kroezen, who in 2019 published a study of the revival of craft brewing in the Netherlands that described the ‘regenerative changes’ that surprisingly followed after a century of continued industrialisation in the land of brewing giant Heineken.

“The notion of craft is inherently about the tension between human and machine at work. This first became salient for manufacturing work with the Industrial Revolution and now, in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution fueled by artificial intelligence and machine learning, appears crucial for understanding any form of work. Rather than implicitly assuming that mechanical alternatives are naturally superior and inevitable, our study provides a framework that enables us to critically reflect on when, why and how we should embrace craft approaches to contemporary forms of work. This involves considering when the quality of work outcomes should remain dependent on engaged humans,” says Jochem.  

For example, the review cites the example of ‘software craftsmanship’ that was a leading principle of the original ‘Agile manifesto’. While pioneers of the software industry had long been able to approach their work like artisanal craftspeople, increasing standardisation and industrialisation had gradually marginalised the role of software programmers in the sector. The manifesto flowed from concern that this had generally been done at the expense of the quality of software work, and it promised to free the human ‘makers’ of software from assembly-line style work processes.

Specifically, the review describes how a craft approach to work relies on distinct work skills – including mastery of technique and embodied expertise – as well as specific work attitudes such as a devotion to one’s work with a concern for communal interests and explorative learning. The review also shows that the manifestations of craft in contemporary society are multifaceted: apart from appearing as a nostalgic or ‘pure’ alternative to industrialised work forms, craft can also appear in more ‘technical’ or ‘creative’ configurations that embrace different aesthetic qualities in work outcomes such as ‘technical excellence’ or ‘creative stimulation’.

“Together, these configurations show how craft can be used to illuminate the human pole of the fundamental tension between human and machine in contemporary work organisation and the different ways in which this tension can be resolved,” the review says.

The study in the Academy of Management Annals – entitled “Configurations of craft: alternative models for organising” – is co-authored by Dr Jochem Kroezen of Cambridge Judge Business School; Professor Davide Ravasi of University College, London; Dr Innan Sasaki of the University of Warwick; Monika Żebrowska of Cambridge Judge Business School; and Professor Roy Suddaby of the University of Victoria in Canada.