Best practice or the best examples of practice? Learnings from the craft and art of ukulele making

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy December 5, 2017
What can the technology industry and its buyers learn from a craft maker? Quite a lot. The parallels are uncanny but then I wonder if we're on the cusp of finally understanding some universal truths.

pete in workshop
My brother Pete in his workshop

Time and again I hear that firms should follow best practice in technology adoption, implementation, and deployment. But as Vishal Sikka, former CEO Infosys told me a long time ago, and which I intuitively knew, best practices always represent a rear view mirror of the world that stifles the ability to think differently. Best practices as I have observed them are little better than cookie-cutter approaches that lead to bland outcomes.

So it was with keen interest that I had the opportunity to review a long paper my brother recently wrote, documenting his learnings on the art and craft of ukulele making during a visit to Hawaii and the west coast of the United States in 2016. To put this in context, my brother has been making almost all of his life. First as a guitar maker, then as a jeweler and, for the last 20 plus years, as a ukulele maker.

Without overstating it, he is at the very top of that game, producing some of the world's best art instruments at prices to match. That's not the point. As he gets closer to the official UK retirement age, my brother is still learning. Equally importantly, as a trained educator, he has an inbuilt sense of wanting to pass on his knowledge to the next generation of makers.

What has any of this got to do with technology? I can think of numerous angles, not least the fact he makes extensive use of technology in his making, marketing, and teaching. Beyond that, his paper, which is for submission to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, a charity that partially funded his trip, provides valuable insights that can be applied in the application of sophisticated technology.

If you would like to see a copy of his paper, then it can be found here.

Learnings - the things that matter

Crucially, he talks about the best examples of practice, gleaned from a series of interviews, parts of which were documented in a video (see below - this is a draft but a good draft.) Why? While each of the master makers he spoke with wants the same outcome  - perfection - each has a different approach to the problem of master craft making.

As is common in that field, those who are considered masters have little by way of formal training and education but from their learnings and experience, now offer different, structured course types. Most of the world's best craftspeople have honed their skills over a lifetime of work and study. That's not unlike many of the coders I know.

Regardless of teaching method, a few points my brother pulled out of his learning stand out.

The need to develop trust between students and teacher. The outcome of all courses is a bespoke musical instrument, something that the student can feel proud to have made. That can't happen unless there is a bond of trust between the student and teacher. In my brother's case, he runs intensive 5-day making, as opposed to skills transfer courses. So how do you kick-start trust building?

In order for me to be more effective, I am going to put in place a longer ‘dialogue’ with students prior to attending the course so that they are more re-assured when they meet me for the first time and have a kick start to the student/teacher relationship before the course starts.

The degree with which students have control over their learning is another theme central to the practice of David, Mike, Rick and Sam. By allowing their students ‘freedoms’ within the design and make process they feel that students have greater ownership of the finished product. We discussed in great detail the conflict this creates between the learning objectives and the need to have a finished and functioning instrument at the end of the course. One way of directing this rather than dictating it is to model the process by building alongside students.

Extending the 'teach by showing' method to include paired learning leads to three important outcomes:

1. Students can watch, follow then copy the process and will, therefore, tend to imitate the performance of a master. By so doing, the individual has both ownership and personal identity.

2. Students have a solid reference point.

3. Concerns can be addressed as they observe the teacher overcoming challenges.

With this in mind I have already started to build an instrument alongside my students rather than use their work as a model and have seen a distinct improvement in attitude towards ‘assistance’ and intervention. In final review after completion, students feel that they have a greater ownership of the entire process and a greater sense of satisfaction/value for money.
As a trained educator I thought I knew how to teach. However, I had not thought to integrate into my practice one of the key methods of learning – peer supported learning....students are encouraged to discuss with each other the instruction before appealing to the course instructor for revisionary information.

This is such an effective method since it relieves the pressure on the instructor to be in constant delivery and re-delivery mode. However, it also creates a better atmosphere in the workshop as collaboration and friendships develop a sense of inclusiveness. Preventing isolation because of feelings of inadequacy or perceived lack of skill against that of a peer moves the process of gaining confidence in the learning considerably.

David, Mike and Sam allow their students a very high degree of design freedom in their practice with David taking the process forward from a blank sheet paper… Since I am delivering an intense immersive experience I cannot allow complete freedom in the design process. What I have taken from this is the need in my courses to allow the students to form their own parts and make decisions regarding headstock shape and fretboard markers, logos etc. These may seem small steps. Nevertheless, the increased sense of ownership that small aspects of personalization brings adds significant value and a sense of self-satisfaction to students.

Unpacking learnings

There are several observations worth bringing out that can be applied to technology adoption, implementation, and execution:

  • Nothing here makes any mention of the skills needed to get the job done. I know that in my brother's case, he works with folk who have basic woodworking skills but doesn't assume any particular specialist knowledge in luthiering.
  • Everything here is about building a relationship designed to be inclusive and uplifting.
  • Despite many years experience as both a maker and educator, learning is not done.
  • Learnings come from a willingness to share openly, even among people who would otherwise be competitors. This last point is vitally important because it talks about an issue I see over and over among technology buyers. That is the view that somehow, their process differentiates them when in fact it is the process in the context that distinguishes. In short, you can put the same two skilled people side by side to solve a problem. Both will likely come up with different and equally valid answers, depending upon the precise, contextual circumstances, But it is in the shared experience that in-depth learning of the human kind emerges and leads to something fresh and new.
  • Can there be the application of the 'I show, we learn, you do' approach to training and skills transfer?

When you take these points together and then consider this as a proxy for the world of software makers, it is not hard to find the parallels.

Coders are intensively competitive, but the most accomplished are those who are continually learning and sharing what they learn. As an example, I'll never forget an SAP community project with which I was involved. We struggled to build a useful end-user interface. A day before we were due to present to several thousand devs, Thomas Jung, one of SAP's big brains wandered down the hall, saw us in a huddle and gave us the code we needed. He had built an interface for us, freely and without our asking. It gave him something interesting to do on an otherwise dull three-hour flight. That's mastery in action.

A Workday example

I recently spoke with Carrie Varoquiers, President, Workday Foundation & VP of Global Impact about the work the company is doing with disadvantaged young people through the Year Up program and those from non-traditional backgrounds, in this case, US forces veterans under what it calls the Workday Career Accelerator Program (CAP). Workday is now in its third iteration of the program for veterans, and while the numbers trained and subsequently employed are small, the success rate is much higher than is expected when bringing interns into the technology workplace.

I was curious to understand a few things, including the roles taught, the extent to which success in training translates to success in the workplace and lessons learned.

According to Varoquiers:

There are plenty of entry level roles that should not require a four year degree but we wanted to take that and extend it to those who might not normally be considered for a role in IT. Veterans are a good place to concentrate effort because they have the kind of attitude we want to see in the workplace.

Our job has been to ensure their success. There's lots of ways to do that but making clear that we are including them as part of what we expect will be the next employee goes a long way. We've found that those who graduate, go on to taking up well paid positions and are highly valued in the workplace. They are loyal and very hard working - two attributes everyone wants - but they also teach us where we can improve on what we do so as we progress with the program, we are adjusting to make it better. Our success rate on graduation from intake is around 80%. That's well above industry norms for interns.

I see a variety of programs on offer by the tech industry, but I wondered the extent to which industry practitioners could do better by collaborating.

I'm glad you asked that! There is a really good opportunity to help create a well paid workforce of the future when we are prepared to get away from our hiring stereotypes. But yes, the industry should learn from experiences and as you know, Silicon Valley has a long tradition of collaborating among companies that are normally competitors. I think you will see a lot more of that especially as you see people like Marc Benioff actively promoting these alternative types of program.

On the call, it was clear that Varoquiers is deeply committed to the program, and I know in talking to Aneel Bhusri, CEO Workday, that he sees CAP as a valuable contribution to both the company and learning about what works. The big question comes in whether those learnings translate into hiring practices more generally, and the ongoing need for training, reskilling and life learning.

My take

Although this story draws inspiration from a specific type of maker, it is easy to see how the interpersonal skills issues that play such an essential part of successful outcomes can be adapted for skills acquisition and training in the technology industry and beyond. It is up to company leadership to figure out how this gets systematized without becoming yet another boat anchor that hamstrings companies from selecting, training, hiring and retaining the most appropriate talent.

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