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?
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
in for the Old Employment Contract
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Full Potential of New Technologies and Ways of Organizing
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com.
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