Shifting mindsets in the age of technology and AI – we need to develop the art of craft

Written by
Christine Haskell

30 Nov 2019

30 Nov 2019 • by Christine Haskell

Christine Haskell on why job automation and machine mastery are opportunities to reengage with our humanity.

It has become a cliché even to reference the pace of change, exponential growth and irreversible catastrophes as necessary catalysts for adaptation. We all know that tomorrow’s work will be very different. With robots doing everything from conducting funerals to evaluating rules in legal cases, replacement feels imminent for everyone. Yet it’s also clear that technology has real limitations – for the foreseeable future.

Reversing the redundancy of our human skills 

To tackle the ‘wicked’ problems of our present and future, we need to embrace a counterintuitive irony: as organisations continue to create and adopt technologies such as artificial intelligence, employees must stay relevant by focusing on the human skills that machines just can’t replicate.

But, as the industrial structures that supported organisations and strengthened workforces break down, and we rely more than ever on working objectively through procedures, policies and data, the skills people need to stay relevant are becoming ever-more elusive. In a world where scale is a primary business strategy and the systems that support us value data and procedure over independent decision making, it’s hard to think outside the box, experiment, or do the right thing.

Finding the solution in subjective intelligence

My research on master craftsmen and how they gain mastery helps connect the dots on this new dilemma and presents some solutions. The trend in automation is to do things more cheaply and efficiently. As such, machines excel at processing data and performing routine tasks. They fall short on social intelligence, communication, and leading and inspiring others; they are not particularly good at deep expertise, artistry, or the capacity for individual creativity that leads to innovation and creative problem solving.

It turns out that master craftsmen exhibit all of these traits as they strive to raise their own ambitious standards. When it comes to problem solving, dealing with ambiguity and learning to improvise, craftsmen have something to teach us all. They are masters in what I call “subjective intelligence”.

Subjectivity is about being empowered to develop a personal perspective, beliefs, desires or path forward, versus those made from a data-driven, objective point of view. There’s a danger that societal bias towards the quantitative comes at the detriment of developing our own subjective-interpretation and judgement capabilities. We need to develop more systematic processes for independent learning.

Taking the first step towards greater subjectivity requires a mindset shift. In the case of technology, for example, we need to see not just a machine to be operated, but a challenge to be mastered. And it goes a step further: the problem that machine is solving needs to hold a deep fascination for us, so that our compulsion and drive to solve it, under any conditions, helps us to tackle even the thorniest issues. The technology that aids the worker then becomes a means to a much larger end: a medium for individual expression – much like master craftsmen working with the idiosyncrasies of wood or stone.

Apprentices of Siemens USA provide an example. Their goal is to move beyond being simply a ‘machine operator’ who ‘pushes a button’. They learn to understand the bigger picture, programme the machine, fix problems, apply judgement and comprehend, with precision, how their programming impacts production. This kind of end-to-end perspective takes us back to traditional craftsmanship and away from the kind of line specialisation that has workers competing with machines to do work more cheaply. End-to-end thinking requires openness, discernment, self-management, and the ability to both seek and find problems.

Learning to think like a craftsman can be applied to leadership teams and warehouse workers alike. As technology advances and the nature of work changes, both the apprentice and the master craftsman will need to evolve, take risks, re-learn and adapt. But far too many will not, unless we start making changes – now – to our systems of education, workplace training and employee support.

Christine Haskell is a leadership consultant and adjunct faculty at Washington State University. Her book, Craft: What Craftsmen and Women Can Teach Us about Leadership, Creativity and Growth, is in production.