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Skillful PerformanceEnacting Capabilities, Knowledge, Competence, and Expertise in Organizations$

Jörgen Sandberg, Linda Rouleau, Ann Langley, and Haridimos Tsoukas

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780198806639

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: August 2017

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198806639.001.0001

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Skillful Coping

Skillful Coping

Processes of Becoming and Being in Practice

(p.208) 10 Skillful Coping
Skillful Performance

Anna Brown

Gail Greig

Emilia Ferraro

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines and accounts for skillful coping and its complexity in a way that linear and staged models cannot. The authors propose a morphogenetic approach of enskilment that surmounts the limitations of such stepwise progressions from novice to expert. Based on rich empirical data that follow forwards the process of one author’s craft apprenticeship over time, the chapter shows that becoming enskilled is an ongoing process that unfolds against the background of practice. This reveals a recursive, multidirectional pattern of movement that is specific to each practitioner, depending upon his or her prior experiences and circumstances. Thus the pattern of enskilment may be shared by a range of skillful copers, but is given its specificity by each practitioner’s particular background practice(s).

Keywords:   process, practice, enskilment, skillful coping, skillful performance, competence, becoming, morphogenetic, hylomorphism

Abstract: This chapter examines and accounts for skillful coping and its complexity in a way that linear and staged models cannot. We propose a morphogenetic approach of enskilment that surmounts the limitations of such stepwise progressions from novice to expert. Based on rich empirical data that follow forwards the process of one author’s craft apprenticeship over time, we show that becoming enskilled is an ongoing process that unfolds against the background of practice. This reveals a recursive, multidirectional pattern of movement that is specific to each practitioner, depending upon his or her prior experiences and circumstances. Thus the pattern of enskilment may be shared by a range of skillful copers, but is given its specificity by each practitioner’s particular background practice(s).

Approaches to skill development have often been portrayed through linear, sequential, and staged models of progression (Dall’Alba and Sandberg, 2006) as practitioners move from novice to expert, or master. This increasingly prevalent view may be regarded as “hylomorphic” (Ingold, 2013: 20), where form (morphe) is imposed upon matter (hyle) to achieve preconceived, fixed end goals. Therefore, these models of skill development treat skills as predetermined and measurable (form) to be imposed upon a pre-existing body (matter) (Dall’Alba and Sandberg, 2006; Ingold, 2011), so the novice is formed in a predetermined way to achieve the final, expert state. By their very nature, even the most processual models of skill development (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 2005; Dall’Alba and Sandberg, 2006; Kinchin and Cabot, 2010) have, unintentionally, become associated with the hylomorphic, form-imposing approach by implying fixed trajectories and routes to (p.209) becoming skilled. This has limited our understanding of the complexity of the lived experience of becoming skillful (Tsoukas and Dooley, 2011) and how this process unfolds over time (Dall’Alba and Sandberg, 2006).

This chapter takes a “morphogenetic,” or form-generating approach (Ingold, 2013: 21) wherein the essential relation is not between predetermined form and finalized matter, but the dynamic interplay of materials and forces (Ingold, 2011). On this view, becoming skilled is an ongoing process of growth and change that itself shapes the practitioner and the practice in which they participate (Ingold, 2011; Dall’Alba, 2009). Embarking on a journey of “wayfaring,” practitioners follow their own differential lines of becoming, woven together with those of others’, to form a meshwork of practice (Ingold, 2011: 211). We argue that this processual approach, which takes into account ongoing becoming (Tsoukas and Chia, 2002), can help us to surmount the limitations of staged and linear models to unfurl the process of becoming skilled.

We present an account of becoming skilled by following forwards (Langley and Tsoukas, 2010) the flow of materials in a potter’s studio and beyond over three years. Focusing on the notion of enskilment, we illustrate how practitioners are increasingly able to find new possibilities for going on in the world (Ingold, 2013). This offers a new understanding of becoming a skillful coper (Dreyfus, 2014) through a nuanced, recursive, and multidirectional pattern of enskilment, rather than as a trajectory from novice to expert. We argue that this advances extant approaches to skillful coping by embracing the complexity of the process, which hylomorphic models cannot accommodate.

10.1 Skillful Performance in a World on the Move

The dominant paradigm of management research takes a rational, scientific, and acontextual view of knowledge, hence skills have often been considered an attribute of the individual, acquired, possessed, and applied in certain situations (Sandberg, 2000, 2009; Sandberg and Pinnington, 2009; Dane, 2013; Wrathall, 2014; Lindberg and Rantatalo, 2015). Skill development has, therefore, primarily been characterized by movement in a single direction, from the periphery to the core, or from novice to expert as practitioners increasingly acquire the skills to perform a particular task (McLeod et al., 2011; Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 2005). Such approaches take an implicitly hylomorphic view, tracing skillful performance backwards through a series of causal connections, rather than as it continually unfolds (Ingold, 2011).

A process ontology (Langley and Tsoukas, 2010; Langley et al., 2013; Hernes, 2014; Helin et al., 2014), and a morphogenetic approach sees the world “in the making” against a background of practices (Nicolini et al., 2003; Gherardi, 2006; Nicolini, 2013; Dreyfus, 2014). In prioritizing activity (p.210) over products, and change over stability, process theorizing moves away from the conception of organizations and “things” as stable entities that already exist in a predetermined state (Langley and Tsoukas, 2010; Hernes, 2014). On this view the world is constantly unfolding, rather than pre-existing or “out there” and individuals are not separate from—or set outside—their experiences, but rather immersed in a process of ongoing becoming (Tsoukas and Chia, 2002; Shotter, 2006). Here the focus shifts from acquiring and possessing skills to becoming skilled. This involves change, flux, and non-linear movement, rather than a neat progression from A to B, or from novice to expert (Sandberg, 2000; Boud and Hager, 2011; Gherardi and Perrotta, 2014).

Dreyfus and Dreyfus (2005) have presented perhaps one of the most influential models of skill acquisition that challenges the traditional approach, wherein expert performance is embodied, context dependent, and increasingly intuitive and automatic (Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 2005; Dall’Alba and Sandberg, 2006; Kinchin and Cabot, 2010). Whilst the Dreyfuses’ (2005) model acknowledges the non-linearity of process, as stages are skipped or, on occasion, never achieved, it remains difficult to escape the linear presentation of moving between novice and expert (Yanow and Tsoukas, 2009). The corollary of this is that skill inadvertently becomes something that is acquired and mapped through trajectories and models. This reinforces hylomorphic views and implies that practitioners progress through a hierarchy of skill development in a single direction. Furthermore, although the Dreyfuses’ (2005) model gives primacy to an individual’s embodied experience of becoming, it deemphasizes the material engagements (Malafouris, 2008) that unfold as skill develops over time (Dall’Alba and Sandberg, 2006).

The embodied nature of skillful coping resonates with the concept of “enskilment,” wherein practitioners develop skill through a bodily engagement with, and attunement to, their materials and environment (Pálsson, 1994; Ingold, 2000; Barnacle, 2005; Wilf, 2010; Gieser, 2014). However, current discussions of enskilment present exactly the opposite problem to the Dreyfuses’ five-stage model. By narrowly focusing on the relationship between practitioner and material world, they reveal the engagements between maker and environment without adequately considering becoming skillful as part of the wholeness of the background of practice against which this unfolds (Dreyfus, 2014/2007; Helin et al., 2014; Hernes, 2014). We suggest that, adding an empirical grounding in theories of both skillful coping (Dreyfus, 2014) and enskilment (Ingold, 2000) will develop extant understandings of the process of becoming skillful over time (Dall’Alba and Sandberg, 2006). Thus drawing upon these two perspectives of skill development we ask: how does the process of becoming a skillful coper unfold?

Our contribution to current debates in the process and organizational literature is twofold. Firstly, through a longitudinal empirical account of one (p.211) author’s craft apprenticeship, we unpack the “black box” of skillful coping to trace the non-linearity of becoming skilled. We reveal how practitioners become skilled over time, by engaging with, and attuning to, the ongoing flows and rhythms of their materials. This leads to our second contribution, where we suggest becoming a skillful coper involves recursive, multidirectional movements of practitioners and materials in the ongoing flow of becoming. This allows us to see enskilment as a dynamic pattern of movements unfolding against the practitioner’s specific background of practice.

10.1.1 Becoming a Skillful Coper

Skillful coping starts with the premise that activity itself is the foundation of human intelligence and concerns not body/mind made separate, but rather the whole body acting as “one” with the world. Practitioners reach and sustain “flow” in performance, becoming involved in specific practices without being aware of them as their tools and materials fade to the background (Yakhelf and Essen, 2012; Langley et al., 2013; Dreyfus, 2014/2007; Wrathall, 2014). Breakdowns or disruptions in flow enable practitioners to develop embodied understandings of the world, engage emotionally in the choices they make, and recognize situations in new and different ways (Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 2005; Strati, 2007). In so doing, practitioners increasingly attune to their environment by developing nuanced understandings of what matters in a given situation (Ingold, 2000; Dreyfus, 2014).

The Dreyfuses’ (2005) model shows how practitioners with different levels of skill display varying responses to breakdowns—or surprise (Yanow and Tsoukas, 2009)—as they become increasingly skillful copers. In responding to surprise the practitioner attends to a situation with a new type of awareness, in turn, revealing new opportunities and understandings that enable them to proceed with the task at hand (Wrathall, 2014). In the Dreyfuses’ model “novices” resort to rule-based maxims and detached deliberation, often finding themselves in challenging situations that cannot be solved. More experienced “expert” practitioners, on the other hand, respond intuitively to the emerging situation thus finding ways of maintaining the continuity of practicing.

Practitioners progress from “novice”—following rules and maxims—through “advanced beginner” and onto “competence.” Here they gain a sense of what is important, planning their approach to a problem without first knowing if their chosen actions will be appropriate. Often the choices of a competent practitioner will lead to failure, but in moving beyond “competence,” through “proficiency” and towards “expertise,” practitioners dwell with their mistakes, increasingly pursue the elation of success over the fear or disappointment of failure, and emotionally invest in their choice of actions (Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 2005: 786). This embodied understanding enables practitioners to make more (p.212) nuanced judgments as they attune to the emerging environment and develop flexible, intuitive, and in-the-moment responses to situations as they unfold (Yanow and Tsoukas, 2009; Shotter and Tsoukas, 2014). Hence expert activity is said to become increasingly automatic in the flow of skillful coping (Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 2005; Langley et al., 2013).

Although it is argued that one cannot learn without first making mistakes (Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 2005: 782), success of an action is not simply a matter of achieving a certain goal, but achieving it in the “right way” (Shotter and Tsoukas, 2014; Wrathall, 2014). For the skillful coper, becoming “expert” is not necessarily about becoming very good at something—suggesting an end point—but rather about acquiring a continually increasing ability to respond both intuitively and appropriately in a given situation (Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 2005; Yakhelf and Essen, 2012). However, the five-stage model retains a notion of failure, which is inherently hylomorphic. In presenting success as the “correct” way of going on, and failure as the “wrong” way, the path to becoming skilled appears to be predetermined.

Staged models are further hindered by their depiction of the linear progression from novice to expert by offering a formulaic trajectory that reduces the complexity of the world and its ongoing becoming. Critiques of the Dreyfuses’ (2005) model of skill acquisition seek to move towards the non-linearity of process by challenging the “stepwise” progression of skill development and unveil a variation of understanding of and in practice at any given stage (Dall’Alba and Sandberg, 2006), however, they suffer from similar constraints, by placing the path of becoming between two axes (Kinchin and Cabot, 2010). Such models of skill acquisition neither adequately account for the ways in which practitioners may become differentially skilled, for example, having “mastered” one aspect of a practice whilst remaining “novice” in another; nor do they account for the continual remaking of process within the ongoing flow of becoming, wherein practitioners continually review skills they had once considered accomplished to continually refine their movements and ways of going on in the world.

10.1.2 Enskilment: Synchronizing Movements of Body and World

We suggest that becoming enskilled resonates with skillful coping, but rejects hylomorphic tendencies to take a morphogenetic, or form-generating view. This gives primacy to the formation of the skillful coper in and through practice. On this view, success and failure give way to “carrying on,” where each action is a development of the one previous, and made in preparation for the next, as the practitioner enters into correspondence or sympathetic engagement—rather than interaction—with the world (Ingold, 2011). Practitioners “watch and feel” as they work (Ingold, 2011: 51), attuning to, (p.213) and finding synchronicity with, the tools and materials of a practice (O’Conner, 2007; Marchand, 2010; Yakhelf and Essen, 2012; Ingold, 2013; Gowlland, 2014).

Finding fluent performance or “flow” is, therefore, not considered automatic, but rather a rhythmic response to ever changing environmental conditions (Ingold, 2011: 80). With growing intensity in awareness and attunement comes an increasing dexterity and fluency of performance as practitioners improvise and are increasingly able to “bend the rules.” In ongoing rhythmic practice every beat is different, and situations are never the same twice. So, whilst it may be impossible to retract or undo mistakes, it is possible to recover from them through the continual remaking of both process and practice (Montuori, 2003; Ingold, 2011).

Here tensions or disruptions are not seen as obstacles, but rather part of the forward flow of everyday action, as practitioners become increasingly able to adjust to breakdowns within ongoing rhythmic practice, which would otherwise throw a novice off course (Ingold, 2011; Yakhelf and Essen, 2012). In learning to go on in the world by wayfaring, newcomers find their own nuanced ways to perform shared and recognized techniques, using their unique orientation to the practice to shape their particular responses and solutions to a problem (Shotter and Tsoukas, 2014). Hence, practitioners become skilled in their own ways through the constant reiteration of process that enables the newcomer to gradually develop their own sense of personal style (Ingold, 2011; Downey et al., 2015). Therefore the path a practitioner takes to becoming skilled is not one already traveled or predetermined, but rather it unfolds in a unique and nuanced way as part of the forces and flows of the specific practice-world and its ongoing becoming.

We suggest that this morphogenetic approach can surmount some of the limitations of modeled conceptions of skillful coping, by following practitioners in correspondence with their materials to uncover how the process unfolds over time. From this perspective we explore the becoming of a practitioner as the crystallization of the activities in which they participate, where nuances in skills are an embodiment of the lived experiences of the particular path traveled (Ingold, 2000). Here the practitioner—in our example, the potter—and environment are entwined, experienced as one, in an ongoing process of growth. There are no start or end points, but rather ways of going on in the world.

10.2 Following Forwards: Towards Skillful Coping

Our findings are based on an apprenticeship (Coy, 1989; Lave, 2011; Gowlland, 2014)—and ethnography—in a working pottery. Data were (p.214) gathered during extensive doctoral fieldwork undertaken by author 1, Anna, as she embarked on a journey of becoming a potter. Anna recorded 265 pages of field notes and reflexive diaries, gathered a range of documentation, and took over 2,000 photographs. These were augmented by semi-structured interviews over time, plus a life-history interview, with potters who were at various career stages. Although this draws on one case study, we generalize from the particular in order to capture the richness and complexity of the process itself (Eisendhardt and Gaebner, 2007; Ketokivi and Mantere, 2010; Langley et al., 2013).

Anna’s engagement in practice enabled us to trace her own enskilment as she learned what it was to be a potter through the process of making. This first-hand experience affords insights into the embodiment of skilled practice. Away from the field, interview-like discussions between Anna and co-authors, Gail and Emilia, enabled reflective and reflexive analysis of the data and some consideration of wider aspects of the practice of making, to produce insights about the wholeness of the world in which Anna’s activity unfolds. Hence, in thinking through the processes, as well as about them (Shotter, 2006; Ingold, 2013), we are able to reveal insights that could not be grasped from ethnographic observation, shadowing, or isolated experimentation alone.

The site for Anna’s fieldwork is a pottery in Scotland, widely known within the context of Scottish craft. Established in 1982, it is home to six independent potters, including Anna, all of whom design and make their own work. Four of the potters are heard in the data: pottery owner, Sarah, having been involved in ceramics for over forty years, trained with various ceramicists over the course of her career but is largely self-taught, and occupies a widely recognized central position within the field. The others have been involved in making for between two and twenty years: Catherine has been making her own work for just over two years, having completed a fine art degree and worked for approximately twenty years producing ceramics under more established peers. Jennifer, on the other hand, has been making her own work for approximately twenty years after completing an undergraduate and postgraduate degree in ceramics. She is participating in high-end selling shows and exhibitions. Anna is new to the industry; with a background in fine art, she arrived at the pottery with some experience of clay having spent a year working with two potters in an evening class.

We turn to the data, where Anna first presents some background to her journey in the form of a prologue, orienting the reader within the process. The following vignette accompanies Anna as she develops her mug-making skills as part of a wider body of work to sell, and we see the making process move through several iterations. We join Anna in exploring the differences in the evolving mugs from within the process itself.

(p.215) 10.2.1 Prologue

I began life as a potter by training at an evening class under two mentors, in a studio in England. Here I was shown how to throw: centering the clay, pulling up the walls, and forming the shape of the vessel. I was also shown how to “turn” or finish the pots ready for firing and glazing. Learning came through practice, getting to know the clay and how it behaved through repeatedly working with the materials rather than absorbing myself in books. My mentors would observe my working processes and share tips, helping reposition my body to get more consistent results. Otherwise it was up to me to turn up, throw, and repeat. By the time I left that studio and began life in the pottery in Scotland, I could throw a basic vessel but had no experience of many of the other technical aspects of ceramics practice, like recycling clay, “wedging”—or kneading—the clay until it reaches the right consistency, mixing glazes, or firing a kiln. I had broken away from my mentors who had taught me the basic rules of making a pot to set out on my own. Now in a shared studio, working alongside Sarah, Catherine, and Jennifer, I was beginning to see how I myself might become a potter.

10.2.2 Making Mugs: a Process of Becoming

Arriving at the pottery, in October 2012, I embarked on a self-styled project of making mugs. I wanted to improve my skills and develop a product to sell. I’d started making mugs at evening class before joining the pottery. Here I’d been shown how to throw the body and then “pull” a handle from clay, using my hands and water. Making the first mug in my new studio, I followed this process to the letter, pulling a handle, albeit crudely, fashioning it into shape, and attaching it to the mug (Figure 10.1). This mug may look perfectly (p.216) acceptable and functional, but the balance between the size and shape of the mug and its handle didn’t feel right.

Skillful CopingProcesses of Becoming and Being in Practice

Figure 10.1. Making a mug, October 2012, (a) body, (b) pulled handle, (c) finished mug

By March 2013, I was continuing with my mug making and introducing very minor changes to the shape, making its body shorter and wider. I was fairly content with my handle-pulling technique, but I realized that there were tools available to help make handles, which might make the process quicker and easier. However, I recall the frustrations of a particular day where I began to understand that I didn’t really know how to make handles. These new tools became more of a hindrance rather than a help as time again I tried to make handles to no avail, and spent eight hours in the studio only making seven mugs:

Today was a hard day…It started well. I turned the mugs having thrown them a few days before. I was really happy with the results but then I really struggled with the handles. I had to wedge the clay before I could use it and think it may have been just a little too wet. I’m not certain, but the consistency wasn’t very good. I started to wedge on the table, but the clay kept sticking, so I moved to the plaster bat. This was easier. I used my new handle tool to make some basic handle shapes instead of pulling. On Saturday Sarah was making short handles, attaching them to the lip of the pot and “pulling” them by hand into place. I decided to try this with the shapes I had made with my tool. It was a disaster. The clay was way too wet and had air holes in it which created weaknesses that made the clay break. In the end I took the handle off and tried once more. This still didn’t work. I tried making the handle shape with the handle tool then pulling them by hand before attaching to the pot. I did this with about eight handles, and set them out to dry. The kiln was on so I set them on top of it to speed up the drying process…I thought the handles might be OK when I looked at them, but when I tried to attach them to the pots it was impossible, because they just were far too dry, which made it hard to stick the two pieces of clay together. I took the handle off again. I did this for a while, but became more and more frustrated with it. I noticed an old ball of wedged clay on the side of the bench. There was enough to make three or four new handles, using the same process as before, making the basic shape with the tool, then refining this by hand before attaching to the mug. These handles were much better but, in attaching the handle to the mug, I still couldn’t get it to make the right balance; something just wasn’t quite right…the handle just wouldn’t sit in a pleasing way.

(Field notes, March 4, 2013)

It took a long time and demanded perseverance to find a solution to the problem, eventually finding the right consistency of the clay and understanding that I couldn’t force the clay into a position it did not want to adopt. Although it had been a struggle, I was contented to work something out: “Halfway through having a fight with one of the handles it came to sit in a circular shape towards the top of the mug. It worked for that shape of (p.217) mug, and fixed on neatly” (Field notes, March 4, 2013). Although I found success in my trials with clay that day, experiencing what feels like continuous failure can be completely overwhelming. Getting things wrong in the studio is a common occurrence: be it throwing on the wheel and the pot collapsing in my hands, or a bad firing where pots stick to the kiln shelves, or crack and break under the stress of the heat. It can be as if I’ve forgotten how to work the clay, like we are completely out of sync with one another. “It was one of those days where things did not really work well. I wasn’t feeling it. I was being clumsy, making mistakes and getting frustrated with myself” (field notes, October 23, 2013). On days like these I’m not listening to my clay, more like fighting with it. I’m not on the same terms with the material, we’re working to different rhythms, and coming together is difficult: the clay might not want to go where I want to put it, or sometimes I manipulate it at the wrong stage, when its too wet or too dry, so it doesn’t work. I’m beginning to understand that I need to relinquish some control of the process, and learning from my handle-making experience what my colleagues would later tell me:

Don’t try pulling handles with too soggy clay or slightly harder clay, don’t think you can get away with turning something that’s too soft, you’ll just have the horrid little lumps of clay coming off instead of lovely ribbons. So you do learn by listening to what your material is telling you. Definitely.

(Life-history interview, Sarah, January 27, 2014)

All the time I’m working with the clay I’m developing this understanding of its limitations and personality. I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that expediting the process is risky. I can’t cut corners, but have to follow the natural rhythms of the clay. I, like the others in the studio, began to “just know” when the clay was at the right stage to work, when to apply pressure, and when to give way to my tools and materials, but first—like with the mug handles—I had to get things wrong.

I looked at some of the mugs I’d made earlier in the month—and the handles I’d attached—on a day I’d become completely frustrated with the clay being too wet. I thought “it was a waste of time firing those.” I’m probably never going to sell those mugs, but I think making them has helped get to where I am with the handles. It’s all about the consistency of the clay—being able to get it to a state that is workable—not too wet, so it’ll hold its shape, but not so dry that it’ll crack.

(Field notes, March 25, 2013)

Although my understanding of the clay was developing, at times my knowing felt limited: I knew how to make a pot, but I wasn’t entirely sure how to improve it. I wanted to develop my work, so continued making similar items over again to refine my skills. On occasion, on opening the kiln, I would (p.218) receive feedback from my more experienced colleagues, offering technical insight that I myself had been unable, so far, to articulate:

Jennifer came over and looked at my fired pots. We talked about some of the results…Jennifer picked one up…and commented on how much she liked the effect. I agreed and said it was a bit of a surprise. She also said it was a lovely shape and did that thing that ceramicists do, feeling the thickness of the pot walls between her fingers. She said, quite naturally as part of our conversation: “you just need to get the bottoms thinner.”

(Field notes, July 25, 2013)

I had seen other potters feel the pots the way Jennifer did, and I had done it myself although didn’t necessarily know what I was looking for. There was something about the tactile arrangement of the pot, like I was almost able to read it, or understand it differently through my hands. In examining my work, Jennifer was feeling to see whether the walls of the pot were evenly thrown, or whether the pot had a “heavy bottom.” From this Jennifer determined deficiencies in my technique, and suggested how I might solve this “technical” problem: “it was in the turning and also the throwing, lifting the clay quickly” (field notes, July 25, 2013).

I was a little taken aback by Jennifer’s critique, but was grateful for her experience in helping me shape my designs. I acted on her advice, turning my attention to my throwing technique. With this in mind, I sought Jennifer’s guidance when it came to handle making. She shared her process of making, which was completely new to me:

Jennifer suggested making a paper template for myself and buying an artist’s scalpel rather than a potter’s knife because it has a sharper blade, giving a cleaner cut. She rolled out the clay, used the template to cut out long, thin rectangles and then used her sponge and fingers to soften the edges of the clay strips. She laid them in a curved position to set. I learnt a few tricks—like setting the handles on their sides—which is different to the way I’ve been making. A while later, once they had hardened…she showed me how to attach the handle and clean up using a small paintbrush.

(Field notes, August 12, 2013)

I began making handles in the way that Jennifer had taught me, laying my new handles to dry on the plaster bat (Figure 10.2). To the right of Figure 10.2 is my paper template, rolled up and damp from the clay; to the left, my sponge and a mug of water for shaping the handles.

Skillful CopingProcesses of Becoming and Being in Practice

Figure 10.2. Mug making, September 2013, (a) handles drying on plaster bat, (b) mugs before firing

Drawing on all that had gone before, along with this new technique, I continued developing my handle making and eventually in November 2013, after many more iterations, I produced what felt like the resolution of the form, for the time being: the walls of the mug thinned, its body a pleasing (p.219) weight and shape—neither too straight, nor too curved—and the handle taking its rightful place, striking a balance when I held it in my hand. I was looking for the unspoken and the unseen: a judgment of what made a good mug, based on feeling. This reflected an assumption in the studio that we already knew what made something good. This tacit understanding intrigued me, and so I asked my colleagues what they thought made something “good”:

Pick up a pot, like a mug, and they’ll feel a little bit different in your hand…it’s so individual that some for you will feel really nice and for others…it’s just not right in your hand, doesn’t fit the size. As well as that fit and that kind of feel for something that you’re going to be using on a day to day basis it also has to be…well crafted. The bottom of a pot is just as important as the top and from every angle it should say something, or should be consistent. Or if its not, you know, the line, or the flow, or the feel of the pot…it should have some sort of flow.

(Interview, Catherine, February 18, 2014)

Although I had found the flow in my work, this by no means marked the end of the process. I knew there were still improvements to be made, but felt able to take my products outside of the studio. I started my business on joining the (p.220) pottery in 2012 and sold a few pieces in the pottery gallery by Spring 2013. This let me see how they might fit into the wider market, and whether people liked and enjoyed my work. However, it was not until Autumn 2013, after Jennifer had helped me develop the handles, that I felt ready to sell my mugs. I took them to my first fair as part of a wider body of work, primarily as a means of market research, but also to develop an income to reinvest in the business.

I knew from my time in the pottery that there was a market for domestic ware, but wanted to see how my work would be received. I thought the best way to do this was to see what sold, and ventured online to extend my reach. Here I rather unexpectedly found my work being featured on the online marketplace, Folksy, for a Mother’s Day front page (Figure 10.3).

Skillful CopingProcesses of Becoming and Being in Practice

Figure 10.3. Screenshot of Folksy.com feature, February 27, 2014

If nothing else, the feedback from customers, online selling platforms, and peers enabled me to push my work further. Listening to my materials, and to my own and others’ interactions with them was paramount in getting my products “right.” By comparing my work to others’, especially the work I admired, noticing how the bottom of the mug was formed, the amount of liquid it held and its balance in my hand, I heard Jennifer and Catherine’s advice anew. I saw for the first time what appeared to be an industry standard for mugs and that mine fell short by a couple of centimeters. In light of this realization I went back to the studio to continue making.

With these new insights I was able to develop a more refined product for market that took into consideration what my audience wanted. A year later, by August 2014, I had changed the size and form of my mugs, making the walls taller and thinner still, whilst gradually perfecting the glaze. I returned to pulling handles, rather than cutting them from clay slabs (Figure 10.4). (p.221) Although it took several attempts to perfect my technique, and get consistent results, I was able to produce both a more skillful and aesthetically pleasing mug that conformed to industry expectations.

Skillful CopingProcesses of Becoming and Being in Practice

Figure 10.4. Pulled handles drying on plaster bat before attaching to mug body, left to right: May 2014 and August 2014

Sarah had expressed to me, in discussion, how she always kept the pieces of work that she might consider an “ah-ha!” moment. Where movements with the clay might seemingly crystalize to form something that you’re proud of. These pieces might not be technically excellent, but are the best that you can do at that moment in time, and often came as a surprise:

I used to just sell everything, but no, I’ve kept quite a few where I’ve thought I’ll never make something quite like that again…I’ve become too clever now…I was so pleased with that, it felt just like a sort of tea bowl. It isn’t really but I was so proud, still am quite proud.

(Life-history interview, Sarah, January 27, 2014)

I’m beginning to grasp this for myself in my mug making: seeing my work in new ways as I spend more time in the studio and selling my work. I too have a number of pieces I have held onto that mark particular moments where I spontaneously created something that went beyond my expectation, as if everything that had gone before finally came together. In that respect I can see how my work is changing, these new experiences illuminate something I was previously unable to see, especially the naivety in my early attempts at (p.222) making. As a result I’m increasingly responding to the standards of the industry, and in meeting these standards more opportunities are opening up to me. I’ve come to realize that there’s little point in developing a body of work not informed by current trends, or what my customers want. My own “ah-ha” moment arrived, both in the emerging resolution of my mugs and in a new understanding of the need to respond to and immerse myself not just in making, but the wider activities of the practice that go on beyond my studio bench (Figure 10.5).

Skillful CopingProcesses of Becoming and Being in Practice

Figure 10.5. Mug design, April 2015

10.2.3 Epilogue

Looking back now, in 2016, I can clearly see changes in my work: the thinning walls of the clay achieved through more dynamic movements of my body; making a handle that is functional and pleasing by moving through various techniques of making to eventually find my own. In making mug handles I can see that I had a pre-formed idea of how the process should unfold, hence I found myself in discussion with the materials in a way I’d not anticipated. (p.223) I struggled with the clay as it refused to move in the ways that I would like. I can now see that my lack of skill and underdeveloped understanding of the material—trying to expedite its natural rhythms by drying it on the hot kiln—only created further breakdowns in the process leaving the clay, at first too wet and then too dry, cracked and broken as I tried to manipulate it into the desired state.

Critique from my more experienced peers enabled me to see things I had been unable to articulate. My experiences both inside and outside of the studio opened up new understandings about the work I’d been creating, and I began to understand it in relation to craft more widely. By engaging in this way I opened up new possibilities of working, allowing me to see the mug as a whole rather than handle separate from body. It was here that I realized that, although I felt I’d perfected the handle making, I still had some way to go in developing the mug. A continual making and remaking of the mugs, in light of this new knowing, enabled me to intensify my attunement to my wider environment and I began to listen to what the clay was telling me, developing a relationship of mutuality rather than command.

10.3 (En)Skilled Coping: a Discussion

The empirical data demonstrate becoming a skillful coper through a process of enskilment. Taking this morphogenetic approach enables us to unpack the black box of skillful coping to show how becoming skillful unfolds over time. We see recursive, multidirectional movements of practitioner and material in the ongoing flow of materials as they emerge from the background of practice (Dreyfus, 2014/2007). Through the process of enskilment practitioners are shown to develop an understanding of the relations not only between material and maker, but of the wholeness in which that activity takes place. It is the nuanced and changing revelation of the whole that enables practitioners to find new possibilities for going on.

We demonstrate a movement of practitioner from traditional, hylomorphic ways of being, to an increasingly morphogenetic engagement with the flows of the world (Ingold, 2013). For example, we begin with Anna in the studio as notions of “success” and “failure” guide her activity suggesting that she was not yet fully attuned to her environment. This reflects how prior expectations about how things should turn out may constrain the discovery of possible ways of going on in the world. Anna’s ability to find these new possibilities relied on breakdowns in the flow of everyday work (Yanow and Tsoukas, 2009; Yakhelf and Essen, 2012; Dreyfus, 2014) as tools and materials emerged from the background of practice to enhance understandings and reveal new insights or ways of doing.

(p.224) Breakdowns, therefore, elicit a response from practitioners that alters their focus and makes apparent new aspects, which had previously been hidden (Pálsson, 1994; Shotter, 2006). For Anna, this was becoming attuned to know the “right” consistency of her clay, without which she would not have been able to carry on her mug-making activity. Hence the specificity of the background of practice that Anna experiences is shown to shape Anna’s understandings. Thus materials—tools, raw materials, and peers—are shown to play an active part in the practitioner’s ability to tune in and understand their environment.

Anna begins to receive both critique and advice from more experienced makers on her working methods. In experiencing a different kind of surprise in the feedback from her peers, rather than the clay, Anna focuses her efforts and develops her skills further, in a direction that is consistent with what makes a pot “good.” Intrigued by this distinction between good and bad, Anna probes her colleagues as to what the underlying meaning of a good piece of work is. This reveals new embodied understandings that can only be garnered through making activity. Anna begins making judgments in line with those of her peers, temporarily resolving the form of the mug based on the tactile arrangements of how she and the mug fit together: the balance of the handle, the curve of the walls, and the feel of the mug in her hand, rather than how the mug looks. With this, Anna is shown to be developing an attunement to her materials in light of a changing orientation to wider practice, evolving existing understandings and embodying shared norms that enable her to see her work anew.

As she further tunes into the process of making, Anna is seen to let go of hylomorphic plans, strategies, and designs on her future activity. This is reflected in Anna’s approach to entering the craft market as a method of market research using her selling exhibitions and online platforms to gain feedback from peers and customers. Continuing her conversation (Yanow and Tsoukas, 2009; Ingold, 2011) with the materials outside of the studio—and seeing her work against that of more experienced makers—produced a disruption that enabled Anna to see her mugs again, anew. As Anna continues to immerse herself in making, materials continually emerge from the background of her practice. These increasingly shape her actions, as her existing understandings are reframed to reveal deficiencies in her mug making she had once thought resolved.

Anna had not considered her mug a failure, but was discovering new ways of making and going on in the world. Without this reviewing of the mugs she might have continued to make them in the same way for a much longer period of time. However, in listening and responding to materials both inside and outside of the studio, rather than exerting control over them, Anna was encouraged to remake and refine her work further, thus intensifying her (p.225) attunement to the practice, and developing her skill in making. This suggests that experiencing breakdowns and disruptions heightens practitioners’ awareness and allows them to develop greater depth of attunement in the forward flow of process.

Failure can, therefore, be reframed, not as a derogatory connotation of “getting things wrong” or as an end to a means. Instead we suggest that what some consider as failure or disruption (Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 2005; Yanow and Tsoukas, 2009) is inherent to flow and going on in the world. The resolution of an aspect of Anna’s practice is no longer an ending, but becomes a springboard for the next iteration of skill development, as new and different aspects of practice are revealed through her engagement in process (Ingold, 2011). In becoming open to new ways of making mugs and handles, Anna relinquishes control of the process and enters into correspondence with her materials and the wider world. Thus we see her designs emerging in the making, rather than pre-formed in an isolated mind. In following the flow of her materials Anna becomes increasingly attuned to practice, improvising through breakdowns that occur against the background of her particular experience of practice, so she can respond flexibly as events unfold (Montuori, 2003; Yanow and Tsoukas, 2009; Ingold, 2011; Yakhelf and Essen, 2012).

The process of enskilment is shown to be recursive, moving horizontally through process, rather than vertically through hierarchical structures, as Anna traverses her practice, revisiting existing ways of knowing—and old ways of doing—to incorporate new understandings. We see from Anna’s more experienced colleague, Sarah, that it is not possible to undo previous knowing and for example remake in the same naïve ways as when one was less attuned. Rather, practitioners articulate their skill as it was then, reflecting on a tea bowl made years previously, to momentarily see what has gone before in the context of what they know now. Hence, in the process of making, there is an ongoing and recursive movement backwards and forwards that is more dynamic than linear conceptualizations of novice to master suggest. Here practitioners continually reattune their understandings of what makes something good in light of their current enskilment. Thus they revisit earlier understandings of their practice in order to develop their skills, and understanding of practice, to go forward in the world.

This movement is shown as Anna develops her understanding of handle making and, in turn, mug making. Her ongoing experiences reveal that the techniques she once thought were mastered are insufficient for going on in the world, and she returns her attention to these particular aspects of her making. This demonstrates that stages such as “novice” or “expert” are not fixed positions or destinations from which there is no deviation. In always going on, through a recursive process of becoming a skillful coper, practitioners continually readjust their understanding of skill as new aspects of (p.226) practice are revealed. For example, participants can temporarily “master” one aspect of practice and then reapproach it through their developing attunement to revise or refine this further, and/or simultaneously be a “master” in that area of practice whilst still being a “novice” in another. This shows how practitioners are perpetually moving both backwards and forwards between new and extant understandings as part of the process of becoming skillful copers.

Whilst the pattern of recursive and multidirectional movement may remain the same or similar for practitioners in varying disciplines, the process of enskilment will itself be specific for each practitioner. Practitioners progressing along their own differential paths of becoming will have a unique orientation to the world, shaped by the meshwork of extant understandings and the practice in which they are situated (Dall’Alba and Sandberg, 2006; Ingold, 2013). For example, two practitioners approaching a specific practice from different backgrounds will have nuanced orientations to going on. Likewise, material flows and forces—in the form of tools, raw materials, peers, and industry bodies—emerge from the background of a specific practice to shape practitioners’ particular paths to becoming skillful. For example, the views of Anna’s peers and her experiences outside of the studio encouraged her to conform to industry norms; whilst her conversations with raw materials and tools helped shape her body and refine her physical movements, as well as her understanding of the practice of making itself.

We propose reframing the stepwise progression of skillful coping and the attainment of “expert” status, to consider becoming skilled through openness to the possibilities of going on in the world. On this view there are multiple variations in enskilled performance (Dall’Alba and Sandberg, 2006), and those better attuned to the forces and flows of their specific practice-world will find new and nuanced ways of increasingly skillful coping. Therefore the specificity of experience and understandings, rather than “volume,” will enable practitioners to find new possibilities for going on in the world. Hence becoming enskilled is not a process of moving towards expert status, but rather reviewing extant understandings as a means of going on, giving way to the flow of materials and entanglement of ongoing lines of becoming as they knot and unfold in the meshwork, and against the background, of practice.

Enskilled coping, therefore, occurs not through a staged model, but presents as an ongoing, recursive pattern of movements through which practitioners are repeatedly able to grasp both the foundational skills of a practice and the wholeness of the situation as it occurs. Here understanding of the world shifts through the practitioners’ changing participation (Lave, 2011) as they become increasingly open to the possibilities for going on. This pattern of enskilment can also be seen in studies of fishing (Pálsson, 1994), gardening (Gieser, 2014), jazz musicians (Wilf, 2010), and not least our own experiences of becoming an (p.227) academic, and doctoral training (Barnacle, 2005). Herein practitioners continually revisit extant understandings in light of new knowing, as they are always learning about what they already know (Lave, 2011).

10.4 Concluding Remarks

These insights add to current understandings of skillful coping by highlighting aspects of the process of enskilment that focus on the ongoing flow of practice, where the practitioner and environment become entwined and are experienced as one. In bringing together existing literature from process, philosophy, and anthropology we challenge the hylomorphic tendencies of skills acquisition and surmount the limitations of models and trajectories that map a progression through skilled performance. We argue that exploring skillful coping through the morphogenetic approach of enskilment accommodates its complexity and reveals the dynamics and multidirectional nature of the process as it unfolds against the background of practice.

In so doing we contribute to the extant literature in two ways. Firstly, we provide a longitudinal empirical account of how enskilment unfolds over time. Secondly, we show the pattern of movement through which practitioners find new possibilities for going on in the world. In so doing we present an alternative to models and linear depictions of skills acquisition and move towards revealing the process of becoming an enskilled coper. This invites future research to explore the pattern of enskilment in other forms of work outside creative production.


Dr Ferraro’s contribution to this chapter is part of her association with the “Knowing from the Inside” research project, financed by the European Research Council and led by Professor Tim Ingold.


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