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Series Technology

Part 8, Case Study 1: Furniture Restoration

A look at chapter 6, the first of two case studies. Furniture restoration

Chapter 6 of the book Responsible innovation, A Narrative Approach is dedicated to fieldwork carried out in Manchester UK with a furniture restorer. This is a descriptive chapter, based on recorded conversations that took place in a workshop I used to work in myself. The question that the whole book tries to raise is about why certain people choose to work in particular ways, while others do it differently. This is fundamental for the question of responsibility.

The Restorer’s Narrative

The use of the word ‘narrative’ in the book title relates to how people narrate their working practices and how they make their decisions and choices, this chapter presenting the first of two extended narratives. The second comes from a scientist, with my personal question asking how closely the narratives of a furniture restorer match that of a scientist, the first carrying out high quality restoration work and the second biotechnology experiments.

Both chapters contain photos, as one aspect that appears similar is the layout of the workspace and how this both reflects and enables particular forms of working practices. The restoration workshop is compared to other workshops in the area, and as I am a furniture restorer myself, I draw conclusions based upon the relationship between tidiness and quality (I have 17 years’ experience in the trade).

The chapter contains an explanation of tacit knowledge acquisition (as discussed in part 7 of this series) within a setting that I know well, before the question that forms the central pivot of the book as it is applied to working practices; what matters to people and why? Ideas such as ‘for the good of all parties involved’ come up, as does the concept of skilled vision from chapter 5.

The skilled vision of the restorers allows them to share and talk about the workmanship and choices made during the restoration process using beauty as a measurement. A piece can only be beautiful if it has been done technically correctly, with flair and style, no corners cut, and with all of the decisions taken during the process in mind.

Only if the right questions were asked and the right decisions made, the work done well and the end product of high quality and fitting for the house that it will live in, can it be beautiful.

If any of the above is not right, it is not beautiful. Aesthetics as a measurement of correctness and quality, but also morality (no corners were cut, even though the customer will not and cannot know that).

The Recordings

The second half of this chapter consists of the transcription and analysis of several hours of recorded conversation between the furniture restorers and myself. They are discussions rather than interviews, wide-ranging and based upon shared understandings and shared knowledge. Topics covered include:

  • The relationship between the community and a small business
  • Aims, goals and company policy
  • Work as an art form
  • Investing unseen time
  • Using the ‘correct’ methods (doing it right)
  • The importance of style
  • Customer relations
  • The importance of being able to share your reasoning with others
  • The importance of having learned the work through an apprenticeship (situated learning, tacit understandings and knowledge)

Although all of this might seem far from technology and innovation, it is not really. All of the above relates to decision-making at work, driven by values rather than rules. In cutting-edge scientific research and innovation settings we find similar situations occuring, in this case driven by the fact that the rules have not been made yet. The process is driven by the values of the researchers, they strive for a goal that is much bigger than just a result and within a framework that is constantly being constructed in the workplace.

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