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MIT 21st Century Initiative

Free Agents in the Olde World,” J.Rosenfeld. Fast Company, May 2001

Viewpoint: The Rebirth of the Guild,” R.J. Laubacher and T.W. Malone. Originally published in the Boston Globe, August 24, 2000

Retreat of the Firm and the Rise of Guilds: The Employment Relationship in an Age of Virtual Business,” R.J. Laubacher and T.W. Malone. MIT 21st Century Initiative Working Paper, August 2000

The Dawn of the E-Lance Economy,” R.J. Laubacher and T.W. Malone. Harvard Business Review, September-October 1998

Flexible Work Arrangements and 21st Century Workers’ Guilds,” R.J. Laubacher and T.W. Malone. MIT 21st Century Initiative Working Paper, October 1997

 


Learning can be a charged term for today’s workers. In an information economy, the ability to master new skills throughout one’s career is crucial. But when this learning requirement is added to ever more demanding job performance standards, and the need to fit in family responsibilities and personal life, it can all feel like too much. Between long hours on the job and the home front, who can find time to bone up on those new skills?

One possible approach for addressing this problem lies in new kinds of organizations—what my MIT colleague Tom Malone and I call “guilds.” Guilds operate independently from firms and provide the kinds of services information-age workers need, but are not receiving from today’s business institutions, which remain largely oriented toward the industrial age. By more closely integrating work and learning, and allowing both to occur on the worker’s terms, guilds could help to mitigate today’s hard choice between work, personal life and learning.

Learning in the Old vs. New Economies

The old and new economies involve sharply different approaches to learning. In traditional corporate settings, learning is most often associated with formal training programs—the classic version is the off-site event at a retreat center or the corporate “university.” Employees are taken out of their daily routines and placed in classrooms—either lecture halls, where an expert imparts wisdom from the podium, or seminar rooms, where the “students” sit in a circle to discuss the assigned topic. Water cooler talk about these events usually focuses on everything but learning. One subset of employees spends hours poring over the brochures that describe tourist attractions near the training venue—while somehow managing to misplace the schedule of formal sessions. Another group complains about time away from “real work,” anticipating the backlog of emails and phone messages awaiting them upon their return

The new economy stereotype involves a goateed, multiply-pierced Web designer. Operating as an “e-lancer” from his apartment, he downloads animations from cool sites, unpacking the source code to see how the latest effects were created. In this setting, learning occurs on-the-job, in real time, and is a solitary affair. Any interactions, which do occur, take place via DSL line and cable modem.

Both these depictions are extreme and flatten the complexities of both old and new economies. But they also convey a kernel of truth. Big, established companies often have large numbers of workers who need to know similar things. Given this, it makes sense to have groups of employees leave their daily routines and attend structured sessions based on a set curriculum. New economy firms tend to be leaner, with few people in a particular department or functional area. In addition, they make greater use of free-lancers. Under these circumstances, learning requires more individual initiative and occurs continuously, as part of the daily work, often via virtual interactions.

The old vs. new economy stereotypes imply a series of tradeoffs around learning—classroom vs. individualized, structured vs. unstructured, separated from daily work vs. closely tied to it. But such dichotomies obscure the realities of learning—working adults learn best in the space between these extremes. Recent research has shown that the most effective workplace learning:

 is intensely social, and

 occurs within a context of real practice.

To enhance learning at work, the challenge is thus twofold. On the one hand, the big company training approach needs to get tied more closely to daily work practices. And on the other hand, solitary, disconnected workers—small firm employees and “e-lancers” alike—need help in linking up with peers. Guilds can help on both fronts.

Guilds—Filling in for the Old Employment Contract

The guild concept grew out of Tom’s and my realization that in recent decades U.S. businesses have adopted a range of new organization practices—increased use of outsourcing and partnerships, implementation of ad hoc project teams internally, and greater reliance on temporary and contract workers. All these practices are designed to maximize flexibility; cumulatively they have led to the erosion of the old employment arrangement. Firms can no longer maintain the broad range of long-term career paths that were at the center of the post-World War II employment contract.

As a potential response, Tom and I posited the rise of new kinds of organizations. These would operate independently from firms and across whole sectors of the economy, to provide workers what they received from employers under the old arrangement: economic security, through a prospect of continued employment and tangible benefits like health coverage and pensions; career assistance, through help in finding the next assignment and in acquiring the needed skills; and a sense of identify and belonging. We called these organizations guilds, in an allusion to the craft associations of the Middle Ages (Laubacher and Malone, “Flexible work arrangements and 21st century workers’ guilds,” MIT 21st Century Initiative Working Paper, October 1997, Laubacher and Malone, “Retreat of the firm and the rise of guilds: The employment relationship in an age of virtual business,” MIT 21st Century Initiative Working Paper).

Organizations of this sort have long existed in industries where free-lancing is the norm—for example, the Screen Actor’s Guild in film production, and the building trade unions in construction. In recent years, a plethora of experiments have been launched to provide services to workers in industries most affected by the new organizational approaches. Activity has been especially pronounced in the information technology (IT) sector, where flexible employment practices are particularly prevalent.

Many existing organizations are expanding their charters to assume some or all of the guild role. For example, professional associations and forward-looking labor unions are stepping in with training and job-matching efforts. Community groups and employers’ associations are active also, creating programs to develop worker skills and building cross-firm career paths. And many temporary and contract staffing firms have expanded the range of services they offer to workers and, by doing so, at least partially play the part of guilds. In addition, new entrants are jumping in—“social entrepreneurs” from the non-profit sector, as well as for-profit start-ups, including a number of Web-based project brokers, such as elance.com and guru.com. In addition, as large firms have moved toward increasing use of ad hoc project-teams internally, some have implemented guild-like structures and roles in-house.

Working Today, a non-profit serving IT workers in Manhattan’s Silicon Alley, is pioneering an interesting model. Working Today has ties with over 20 professional societies, groups like the World Wide Web Artists’ Consortium and Computer Games Developers Association. Its initial offering is a health insurance plan for independent workers, priced competitively with company-sponsored coverage. Once a large number of free-lancers sign up for its health plan, Working Today plans to collaborate with partners and introduce other offerings, in the hope of eventually providing a full range of services.

Working Today’s networked structure parallels that of the virtual enterprises in the IT sector it serves. The emergence of networked guilds—groups of specialized organizations that work together to provide a broad range of services—is a likely outcome of the recent round of experiments.

Guilds as Enablers of Learning

To date, most guilds have focused on providing independent workers with tangible benefits, as opposed to tackling the more difficult challenges of career development and learning. This is understandable—there is a major short-term need in the tangible benefits area, and it’s also a more manageable problem to tackle. But guilds can also contribute significantly to enabling more effective learning in the future.

As a first step, guilds can simply provide a point of connection for informal peer groups and networks of practitioners. Workers inside large companies and free-lancers alike possess such networks—they are the people you go to for advice or information sharing, the ones you want on your project team when the stakes are high. To enhance learning, guilds could initially serve as a simple convening mechanism for connecting individuals who are members of these networks. Once a guild had linked up with a number of such individuals, it could provide “introductions” that might allow new workers to tap into existing networks, as well as make connections across peer groups. These introductions, in turn, could lead to the formation of new networks. Linkages of this kind could enable much greater sharing of knowledge and advice in the context of actual project work.

The next level could involve guilds offering new subject content—supplied via the Web, likely through partnerships with third-party providers. This content would preferably be available on a just-in-time, on-demand basis, to be applicable to real work assignments. The guild could also offer members opportunities to link up with peers trying to master the same new material. Additional services could involve tapping into informal networks to verify reputations as an aid in staffing new project.

At the center of this vision is guilds linking workers active in similar areas, simply by making it easier for them to talk to each other. The assumption is that when conversations take place between workers with shared experience, a great deal of learning will occur. Added to these conversations could be a mix of novel subject content and opportunities to discuss these new areas as they emerge. Such an approach would involve a blend of social interaction and individual puzzling-out; on-the-job learning and outside-of-work reflection; and formally-structured materials and informal, ad hoc connections. In all, it’s a far cry from a trainer lecturing to a classroom of note-takers or a solo e-lancer painstakingly reverse-engineering someone else’s code.

Achieving the Full Potential of New Technologies and Ways of Organizing

The industrial mode of production involved the creation of black-and-white distinctions between work and home, the corporation and the individual. The information age, by contrast, increasingly allows for operation between these extremes, inside the gray space. But before large numbers can move into that space, a supporting infrastructure must be built to address the particular needs of workers operating outside the industrial model.

We believe guilds are a major part of that infrastructure. The first efforts to build them focused on e-lancers and the more volatile parts of the IT sector. But these activities have considerable relevance for those still working in corporate settings. As yesterday’s outlandish organizational experiments, from radical outsourcing to electronically-linked virtual organizations, become mainstream, and as careers inside established firms increasingly resemble a series of temporary project assignments, the charter of guilds can be expected to grow, eventually encompassing workers who are formally employed by large companies.

In the learning realm, guilds promise to break down old distinctions, thereby enabling a closer connection between current work and future development, and more efficient and seamless delivery of new knowledge. The gains achieved in these areas offer the prospect of relieving pressure on workers and giving them an opportunity to achieve better integration of work and personal lives.

While appealing, this vision remains a long way from becoming real. The challenges of overcoming legacy practices, both inside firms, and among highly individualistic free-lancers, are not to be underestimated. But big wins can be achieved in this realm. Guilds—which operate at the intersection of individual career aspirations, informal networks where work and learning actually get done, and the enterprise’s quest for competitive advantage—are where much of the innovation around learning, and around work-life integration, can be expected to surface in coming years. 

Robert Laubacher is a research associate at MIT's Sloan School of Management, where his work examines how IT-enabled organizational practices are transforming the employment relationship. Contact him at rjl@mit.edu.

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