I have to admit that I use this one quite a bit myself, and generally as a negative term, but is that fair?
Dictionary definitions don’t always match a specific context:
Cottage Industry: a business or manufacturing activity carried on in people’s homes.
It’s worth us getting into a bit of history here.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution nearly all industrial activity was carried out in the context of the house. Cloth was produced on a loom at home. Sword manufacture was done by the Blacksmith in a workshop at home. Cartwrights created wheels in a building at their cottage. Even the Miller was was working from home, it just so happened that their cottage was a windmill, or watermill.
One of the primary reasons that the Industrial Revolution changed all of this was the size, and cost, of the machines. When a loom grew to twenty metres wide, required a huge watermill to work and ten people could operate six of them in huge hall the factory was born. This wasn’t the birth of industry, it was the birth of the factory.
We now have factories that are run by robots and produce goods to a specification that could have only been dreamt of by the local Silversmith in there workshop.
That’s the comparison that is being made when we use cottage industry in the office context – high quality factory manufactured goods versus hand-crafted goods produced by an individual, or small team. The inference being that factory manufactured is good and hand-crafted is not so good. But is that comparison helpful, or even fair?
The cottage industries may have shrunk in size, but they haven’t died out, in some areas they are thriving. Why would that be if factory produced items are so much better than those produced in cottages? One of the reasons is that better is a difficult thing to pin down, it depends on the context, and who is measuring. While items produced in factories may be of a high specification that the cottage industry item, the factory process introduces limitations. Factory produced items can be difficult to service – when was the last time you saw someone change a part in a TV? There are limited ways that you can modify a factory produced item, and you normally can’t purchase part of them if that’s all you want. Cottage industries are far more flexible and adaptable. You get to know the person who created it, so have confidence that they can fix/change/modify it if that’s what you want. You can be specific with a hand-crafted item. A factory may be the best way to get 1,000 wheels that are all the same, but it’s not the best way of creating the wheels for a Mars Rover.
There’s also a comparison on scale – the inference is that a cottage industry can only scale so far. Again, is that comparison helpful, or fair? In some ways it is, factories have been able to produce huge volumes of goods at remarkable prices. But it’s also remarkable what a collection of cottage industries can create, much of the Open Source software that we rely upon each day, without knowing it, is produced by small teams of people who are little more than cottage industries. Wikipedia is similar, thousands of individual contributors working away on their corner of knowledge. Imagine a factory trying to produce all of the content Wikipedia? In the right context the cottage industry can scale a very long way.
There’s also a comparison of cost – like value and scale, cost also depends on context. Setting up a factory to produce millions of identical things makes a lot of sense, but you aren’t going to set up a factory to produce a single item, that’s where you go to a cottage industry.
Back to the office and all of the cottage industry projects that are running within most large organisations – good or bad? I think, as we’ve seen, it depends. There are many cottage industries in organisations that should be fostered and encouraged. They are providing value in a way that no factory approach could. Likewise, though, there are many cottage industry projects that are simply duplicates of other cottage industry projects and together they are creating commodity outcomes that a factory would be far better at producing. Where I’ve seen most organisation struggle is that they have no knowledge of the projects being undertaken and no way of assessing the most appropriate response – whether to continue with a cottage industry approach or whether it’s time to bring things together into a factory. Simon Wardley has some things to say about that.
Is it time to stop using the term cottage industry as a negative and to celebrate them a bit more? I think so.
Header Image: The spring flowers in the local woods are blooming.