Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker…


I was speaking with a group of apprentices the other day and we were discussing some of my previous jobs. My career path hasn’t been straight as an arrow (whose has?) but they were interested in one of my first roles, that of a trainee butcher.

It was hard work with long hours but immensely enjoyable. Aside from the primitive thrill of working with your hands, being able to turn a whole lamb, for example, into a range of cuts, joints, and discrete portions gave a sense of satisfaction and achievement which I have always struggled to replicate in work. I guess that’s one reason why I home cook so much, to recreate that feeling. Hand sharpening knives on a steel, selecting where to start, following tried and tested routines which can be trusted to deliver effective results. The creation of product by hand does provide a different satisfaction.

I was asked what doing this job taught me and how did I use it in my job now. It’s not as if I can take knives to people and the industry I’m in isn’t comparable to butchery. It took a moment but I realised it was about giving me a manufacturing capacity, ie the capability to turn raw material into a consistent, measured, scalable piece which meets a particular standard and quality each time.

This consistent and scalable delivery came to mind last week in the #ldinsight chat. The topic was:

I’ve always felt a little discomfort when we use the word art to describe our business function. It goes without saying that there is a high level of creativity within the L&D space; we’re asked to come up with creative solutions to a range of complicated and complex workplace issues, on budget, on time, on demand. To work in a way that doesn’t demand creativity would feel very formulaic.

But to describe a professional service as art? To think of a function as craft? Maybe I’m too conditioned to think of art and craft as mid Victorian wonky plates and imperfect glass.

This was my frame of reference in the chat when I remembered the topic of the artisan which Neil Denny has so eloquently developed. I heard him talk about it at the Learning Live event and he explained artisan in terms of baking.

Neil’s concept resonates because of the tactile nature of both butchery and baking. When I thought about them more I realised there are a number of similarities.

Both have perceived rituals within their artistry; for the butcher it’s the knife preparation and focus on keeping the tools and environment spotless. For bakers there is a sense of delay and pace driven by the need to wait for proving.

Both have an element of care. The baker needs to care for his live yeast culture, feeding it to make it as effective as it can be. For the butcher, it’s about respecting the animal which has been slaughtered, caring for it through dignified and thoughtful action.

Each has a white uniform. The baker is judged by his tidiness and spotless attire. A trusted butcher, however, is unlikely to be judged as ‘professional’ if there isn’t a memory of his work on his apron.

Where they differ is in the industrial nature of their craft. For the artisan baker, bakers have had to re-define their product against 40 years of innovation and development of the Chorleywood bread process. It has changed the way we eat bread through being able to scale production to an industrial size. Complementing this is an alternative market of artisan and home produced bread. The industrial scale of production hasn’t been so obviously replicated in the meat industry although the availability of a master butcher in your local supermarket is a rare occurrence.

All well and good Andrew, but what has this to do with L&D?

Well, if you were to ask your business what they wanted, would they ask for the artisan baker of the industrial production line? Would they ask for the master butcher individual attention or the wide market, plastic wrapped, mass produced cuts of meat?  My fear is that we produce LCD learning, as I suggested recently. It begs the question, if there is art and craft in L&D, do organisations need to see it in the way we work or the outputs we produce?

Let me know in the comments.

6 thoughts on “Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker…

  1. Good morning and thanks for the mention.

    The artisan mindset is, I think, firstly an internal motivator.

    It is often something that is felt and can be recognised and developed. I believe that we also need to be bolder in how we manifest that approach within the end product.

    I often tell people to put their craft up front but not so much that it obscures the benefits to the end user.

    In summary therefore, it is both in the how and the what we do.


  2. OK – so at the risk of being a total fangirl after having the privilege of spending time with you the the CIPD conference this week – I love this writing.
    I find I don’t want to respond to your question directly- but the the wider points about craft, crafting and importance of care in your work.
    My belief is that caring for what your produce and (to some extent) how your produce it shines through in the final outcomes and products.
    As an L&D professional, if I demonstrate care in where I spend my money, my time, my thinking, my energy, I am less likely to end up with pappy white bread, but with something much more satisfying and tasty.

    As ever in these things, I’m interested in encouraging that, role modelling that and pushing that as an OK way to work throughout the Profession. Be Crafty – in a number of senses. Create, craft, be a bit sneaky if you need to be.

    If you ask the business, they may ask for white toast, perhaps because that is what they have always had (and beans on anything other than bog standard white bread is just, somehow, wrong In my humble opinion- it’s a context thing.. I’m all for a bit of medium sliced white every now and again)
    so fine…provide them white bread, as requested and keep baking up different sorts of offerings, using different ingredients & baking at just the right time for people to catch a whiff of what you are up to .. be intentional with your craft and timing….if you do that won’t they “pop in” to see what’s on offer?

    Blimey – I nearly blogged myself there. x


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