The crafty PM: Are you a disposable worker or independent artisan?

The crafty PM: Are you a disposable worker or independent artisan?

I posted in a previous article that there was a study which seemed to indicate that 50% or more of us who work for a living would do so as an independent professional.  This was especially the case if you were a project manager.  I also argued that having the skills developed by this profession should accommodate such a transition better if not the best out there in the corporate world.

Well, based on this article published by the Economist last week, titled “The future of work: Freelance workers available at a moment’s notice will reshape the nature of companies and the structure of careers“, in which they advocate that with the risk of ubiquitous mobile computing and cloud based providers of on demand employment services, it seems to confirm my assertion and that there will be a dramatic rise of “workers on tap”.  As this section outlines, there’s no stopping it:

The idea that having a good job means being an employee of a particular company is a legacy of a period that stretched from about 1880 to 1980. The huge companies created by the Industrial Revolution brought armies of workers together, often under a single roof. In its early stages this was a step down for many independent artisans who could no longer compete with machine-made goods; it was a step up for day-labourers who had survived by selling their labour to gang masters.

These companies introduced a new stability into work, a structure which differentiated jobs from one another more clearly than before, thus providing defined roles and new paths of career progress. Many of the jobs were unionised, and the unions fought to improve their members’ benefits. Governments eventually built stable employment along these lines into the heart of welfare legislation. A huge class of white-collar workers enjoyed secure jobs administering the new economy.

20150103_FBC603_2For a while after the second world war everybody seemed to benefit from this model: workers got security, benefits and steady wage rises; companies got a stable workforce in which they could invest with a fair expectation of returns. But the model started to get into trouble in the 1970s, thanks first to deteriorating industrial relations and then to globalisation and computerisation. Trade unions have lost power in the private sector, particularly in America and Britain, where legislation has reduced their ability to take action (see chart 3). Companies kept stricter control of their labour costs, increasingly contracting out production in industrial businesses and re-engineering middle-management. Computerisation and improved communications then sped the process up, making it easier for companies to export jobs abroad, to reshape them so that they could be done by less skilled contract workers, or to eliminate them entirely.

This has all resulted in a more rootless and flexible labour force. Pensioners and parents wanting or needing to spend more time on child care swell the ranks of students and the straightforwardly unemployed. A recent study by the Freelancers Union, a pressure group for freelance workers, suggests that one in three members of the American workforce (and a higher proportion of younger people) do some freelance work.

The on-demand economy is the result of pairing that workforce with the smartphone, which now provides far more computing power than the desktop computers which reshaped companies in the 1990s, and to far more people.

I underlined the section that indicates that one third of us are already freelancing, which means that we are on course to the 50% mark indicated in the previous article.  But the more troubling trend, is that the many of the jobs that are transitioning to this “on tap” model, are cherished white collar professions such as law, engineering, accounting and even medicine which one would presume to be hard to outsource.  More so than the “on tap” metaphor, is the idea that many of are going to become “disposable workers”.


If anything, what this illustrates is what I have written about quite often on this site in that you must take a more entrepreneurial approach to your work and focus relentlessly on crafting innovative and value driven solutions.  As a project manager, you need to help facilitate this process with your teams as well, which makes your role even harder.  It’s one thing to build these skills in oneself, it’s quite another to facilitate and ignite such thoughts and feelings in others.

If on the other hand, all you do is routine coordination of work, management of resources and tracking of activities, your work and the work of others will be prone to outsourcing and automation.  As the Economist article points out, “a striking proportion of professional knowledge can be turned into routine action, and the division of labour can bring big efficiencies to the knowledge economy… Knowledge-intensive companies are already contracting out more work to the market, partly to save costs and partly to free up their cleverest workers to focus on the things that add the most value.”  In other words, you will become a disposable worker.

On the other hand, this also indicates that we may be coming back full circle in that the very work that industrialization made extinct, namely the craft of artisan work.


As the picture above illustrates, it was a time when skills were carefully developed and passed on from generation to generation in which custom, one of a kind items were built meticulously to order.  It is a craft and an art and is why they are referred to as artisans.  It is unique and personal, since each piece can be identified with the style and handcraft of the artisan.

In a similar fashion, one will have to become an artisan professional.  Your skills will be built and refined through experience and will be a combination of science, art and craft.  Such skills need to be nurtured and maintained, but that shouldn’t be a problem since your are creating your own style and signature of work.  More importantly, you need to facilitate others as apprentices or even disciples who will craft their own unique styles of skills.  Interestingly enough, do this well and I think you will ironically, buffer yourself against the rising tide of globalization since your uniqueness of skills will be sought locally.  Furthermore, computers cannot (as of yet and for some time to come) mimic this so you will also be impervious to automation.

Most importantly, it will give you a sense of renewed pride and accomplishment of work that has been lost in the relentless drive to produce more and more, faster and faster.  And those who develop these skills that are developed over a long time will have a more long-term and brighter outlook in a world that is getting faster and with people with short-termism.  This is the most ironic and serendipitous thing about all of this!  All hail the rise of the artisan professional!

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