Craft Work is Knowledge Work


Steady Hands Make for Good Soldering

Soldering Jewelry


I’ve been following the action at #TUG2010 (Traction Users Group), reading and retweeting lots of good stuff from @rotkapchen, @vmaryabraham, @jackvinson, and @lehawes. Jack Vinson tweeted “Craft work can become knowledge work. Making it visible. narrating it. He added the hashtag for observable work, #owork, as well – indicating that was the concept he was associating it with.

My initial reaction to what Jack wrote, however, was to the implication that craft work isn’t normally knowledge work, which I don’t think is an accurate statement. Let me also say I’m not sure if Jack actually authored those words or if he was merely reporting them from the presenter at the user’s group preso he was attending and tweeting from. So I’m not taking issue with Jack. Actually, I’m not even interested in who said it; I just want to address the concept of craft work as knowledge work.

I believe all work is knowledge work. Sure, there are different levels at which the knowledge exists or asserts itself, but there’s always some component that involves knowledge; at least if it’s done by a human being. So it is with craft work, assuming I’m using the term in the same sense as Jack or whoever is using it, that is work manifested in tangible items, such as wallets or hydroelectric dams. I think of it as things like welding, carving, painting, growing, etc.

All of these things require a fair amount of tacit (in the head, as we sometimes refer to it) knowledge. As far as the concept of making this kind of knowledge visible goes, I think a lot of it gets transferred that way . . . usually in a mentor or apprenticeship kind of relationship. Making some of it more “visible” can make it more accessible, but there are necessarily limitations.

An instance of this from my life comes from many years ago when I was a jewelry bench worker. The place I was at made very high-end gold and silver shadow-box cuff links and they require some interesting soldering. I melted an awful lot of precious metal before I learned to recognize the colors, smells, and sounds that hinted I was almost at the right temperature and had to back the flame off. I believe what I gained from that experience was knowledge; hence, I was engaged in knowledge work, albeit at a lower level than, say, when I worked on the Space Shuttle Main Engine team.

Maybe the exigencies of saying something in less than 140 characters played a role in it coming out the way it did, but I felt the need to at least record my thoughts. I believe what Jack (or whoever actually made the statement) meant was that making craft work visible increases its accessibility and, therefore, its likelihood of being more easily transferred or learned. It doesn’t thereby become knowledge work, however. It already is and always has been knowledge work. Anybody disagree? Did I misunderstand Jack or the message he was conveying from the presenter?

About Rick Ladd

I retired nearly 13 years ago, though I've continued to work during most of the time since then. I'm hoping to return to work on the RS-25 rocket engine program (formerly the SSME) which will power our return to the moon. Mostly I'm just cruising, making the most of what time I have remaining. Although my time is nearly up, I still care deeply about the kind of world I'll be leaving to those who follow me and, to that end, I am devoted to seeing the forces of repression and authoritarianism are at least held at bay, if not crushed out of existence. I write about things that interest me and, as an eclectic soul, my interests run the gamut from science to spirituality, governance to economics, art and engineering. I'm hopeful one day my children will read what I've left behind. View all posts by Rick Ladd

12 responses to “Craft Work is Knowledge Work

  • Charlie

    let me give you an example of practicle Craft work and the knowledge base which resides in that field. Imagine yourself standing in a room about the size of two or three tennis courts.The floor is made of wood and drawn on that floor are all the lines which make up the shape of the QE2, the famous Cunard Liner. Your “job” is to select the appropriate lines and transfer the info onto a flat wooden template. The area of the vessel you are looking at is called the oxters.If you can imagine lifting your arms slightly and running your hand up your ribcage, under your armpit and down the inside of your arm.This is the shape which represents the transition between the keel (bottom) of the ship’s shell plate and that point where the propellers are supported from the shaft. This is what you must make, a shape or series of shapes which you can turn into a rolled plate which would match exactly that area of the vessel.How would you approach that problem considering there were no computers, no calculators and all you had was a measuring tape, a chalkline, a square, soapstone, a pencil, compasses etc?
    As a young boy I witnessed men do this and they transferred their knowledge to me.These men had done this time and time again.They new exactly what the geometry of the vessels were and how to transfer that data into something real that would fit exactly in place without a lot of coaxing.
    To me that is knowledge and knowledge transfer at work.
    Thanks for listening


    • Rick Ladd

      Charlie – Thanks so much for your wonderful example. Sorry to take so long to respond, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot. You bring up another issue I haven’t spent much time on here, but that I’ve thought about a lot over my KM career at Rocketdyne (with both Boeing and United Technologies’ ownership). It was the subject of a minor Twitter exchange started by Harold Jarche (@hjarche), who was exploring the concepts of explicit, implicit, and tacit knowledge. I have often used my experience as a jewelry bench worker (also as a welder for a while, elsewhere) to illustrate my understanding (or, at least, some of my understanding) of what tacit knowledge is. I see it as knowledge which exists entirely in the head of the person who “knows” it, sometimes without their ability to access it consciously. My experience with others in our attempts to elicit tacit knowledge and, where possible, make it at least somewhat explicit, has shown me that people can’t always tell you what they know when asked to do so. However, when they are in the position where they’re required to use that knowledge, it comes to them readily. For instance, going back to my days as a bench worker, soldering gold and silver. I distinctly remember using sight, sound, and smell (too hot for touch and taste ;)) to determine when solder was ready to flow and metal was ready to melt. However, I can’t for the life of me explain it in any meaningful way I can think of.

      Likewise, your example illustrates, as I see it, a high level of tacit knowledge. I’m curious. My sense is this knowledge was transferred through a combination of mentoring and hands-on experience. In my situation, more experienced bench workers could tell me what to expect, but it wasn’t until I experienced the work myself that I could get a feeling for it. However, melting a few ounces of told a silver over a period of time doesn’t seem quite as devastating as getting a portion of a ship’s hull wrong. So . . . how was it done? Can you share your experience of how that knowledge was transferred? Either way, I’m grateful for your comment and participation. Thanks, Charlie (whoever you are?)


  • Jim McGee

    Jack was commenting on the talk I gave at TUG2010.

    The point I was hoping to make was that those of us doing knowledge work had much to learn from those doing craft work in terms of the relationships between tools, materials, and craft workers. One aspect of that is in the value of making knowledge work observable in order to make it easier to learn and easier to improve.

    Your flipping the notion around to call attention to the knowledge components of craft work reinforces that point of view. I particularly like your example from your days as a jewelry bench worker.


    • Rick Ladd

      Thanks for adding more perspective, Jim. I really hope I made it clear Twitter was probably putting a crimp in the concept being conveyed. Everything was also happening rather fast and furiously, as Jack wasn’t the only one tweeting. As I said, I just wanted to get the thought out there . . . and I’m very glad I did. I am a big supporter of observable work and will be using the concept in a 3-day class I’m scheduled to teach at UPenn next January. I think it is one of the more novel, and useful, concepts to come out of Knowledge Management and Enterprise 2.0 in recent memory. I hope I can add something useful to its development. Thanks again.


  • Jack Vinson

    Here I am, Rick. Too bad I didn’t see this earlier.

    As you surmised, I was reporting something that came up in the conversations at the conference. It is commonly believed that craft work is not knowledge work, but as you say there is certainly TONS of knowledge built into being an expert or master in a given craft. I think this was during Jon Udell’s talk and describing how some master craftspeople have transitioned into being excellent narrators and teachers of their craft. (John Leeke being the example at the time – DIY home repair TV show.)

    I believe the discussion went along the lines that if a craftsperson were to narrate their work, the knowledge would appear for others to use it. But when the master is at the bench, working their magic, the “knowledge” components are hidden to all but the master.

    All in the context of observability.


    • Rick Ladd

      Thanks, Jack. This is precisely what I was hoping would happen. I have been giving a lot of thought lately to what tacit knowledge is (not that I haven’t thought about it for the past decade) and how it comes about, is accessed, and becomes useful. I’m working on a blog post addressing a quote of John Wooden’s that everything we know has been learned from someone else. I don’t believe that’s true and tacit knowledge is the embodiment of my position, because it is contextual and specifically understood by the person who has learned it. I understand what he was trying to say, i.e. we all stand on the shoulders of giants, but I think there’s more to it than that when we’re talking about knowledge (a subject near and dear to both our hearts, eh?).

      With respect to the context of observability, I think we’re on the same page. I was “attending” TUG2010 via Twitter and things were fast and furious. That’s why I made sure to add numerous caveats stating I wasn’t sure who actually made the statement or if it came across in the way it was intended in the first place.

      Glad you came by and took the time to comment. Thanks again.


  • Brett


    I agree with your assertion that craft work is knowledge work, at least in the sense that I understand knowledge work (and craft work). Taking the knowledge and experience you have developed through your life up to that point, applying it to a new problem, and creating not only a new product but new knowledge and experience is the nature of a craft, and at the heart of what I refer to as knowledge work.

    With that definition in mind, I don’t agree that all work is knowledge work. Some work is just work, following a checklist, using your knowledge and experience to do something that has been done a thousand time before and will be done a thousand times again. What Seth Godin calls “factory work” applies as much to white collar work as it does to blue collar work.


    • Rick Ladd

      Hi Brett:

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment. I have often referred to what you call “just work” as mindless work and there have been many times when all I wanted to do was something that didn’t really challenge me much. However, many of those times I lost myself in somewhat simplistic graphics creation and, when I think about it, any kind of creativity involves using some aspects of knowledge. When I was at Pratt & Whitney they had a concept they called Standard Work. The idea was to commit to some explicit form (we used swim lanes for processes and an extensive workflow to show how things got done) in an effort to reduce as much as possible to “just work”. I was never convinced and, truth to tell, I’m of the opinion that anything involving human beings (and their intellect, however shallow it may be) also involves knowledge. I refer you to the work of Frank Miller “I=0: Information Has No Intrinsic Meaning” (, where he argues essentially that context is everything and information is valueless absent its interpretation by human intelligence, thus transforming into knowledge (very specific, contextual knowledge).


  • Trisha Liu

    Makes total sense, Rick! I got confused. I was commenting on your blog title, thinking that this was the statement that inspired you. I missed the ‘craft work can *become* knowledge work’, but I see it there now.




  • Trisha Liu

    Hi Rick! If I take the statement ‘craft work is knowledge work’ at face value, then it sounds to me like you and the statement’s originator are in agreement.


    • Rick Ladd

      Hi Trisha:

      First. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. It’s nice to have someone confirm I’m actually being read 🙂

      As for your comment, I think you’re missing (or, perhaps, I haven’t adequately conveyed) the subtle difference in what I’m trying to get at and what was said. The statement was that craft work could “become” knowledge work . . . presumably when it’s made more visible through observable work concepts, practices, etc. The word “become” implies it isn’t otherwise. Maybe I’m being a little too literal, but I was somewhat startled by the assertion. Hence, my response. I hope that makes sense to you.

      Thanks again for stopping by and, especially, leaving a visible artifact of your presence. Much appreciated.


  • KS.COM » Craft Work is Knowledge Work « Systems Savvy

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