Guilds from the Dot-com Ashes?

March 1 st 2003

Remember the talk that preceded the dot-com bust? You recall those predictions about an economic model in which almost every worker was a free agent, running Me Inc., making a profitable living from orders that somehow would magically appear in e-mail in-boxes through the wonders of Internet marketing? It seemed almost every idea had IPO potential and the anticipation of Yukon gold-rushers; many flocked to either finding the gold or backing the latest can't-miss stock.

The lustre has dulled, and many of the earnings reports being opened continue to bring bad news of unrealized returns. But market over-enthusiasm shouldn't blind us to the new employment models sprouting from these experiments, some of which may have long-term significance.

MIT Professor Robert Laubacher has been studying these models for the past several years. While his observations about the changing assumptions regarding the employment relationships are by no means unique, his emphasis on the importance of drawing on "a rich ecology of other organizations—what we call guilds—to provide a stable home and look after the long-term needs of today's mobile workers" does stand out.

Laubacher points to examples from the information technology, acting, and construction sectors and suggests that the bi-polar framework of standard work (full-time 9-5) and non-standard work (everything that isn't standard) will not last. We are moving, he says, towards a continuum in which traditional jobs with an expected duration of decades lie on one extreme while spot-market jobs where experts are called on to deliver expertise on projects completed in hours or minutes lie on the other. In-between lies a complete range of variations and different structures that need accommodating.

Laubacher cites various experiments in which medical benefits, training programs, job linkages, and social supports are provided by independent organizations outside of and across firms. He notes that

we call these independent organizations guilds and we believe they represent one of the most promising approaches to solving the challenges posed by the new work arrangements. Guilds can provide tangible and intangible support for workers, and at the same time, be nimble enough to operate in an information economy where flexibility and the ability to adapt quickly are paramount. But unlike the guilds of the Middle Ages or labor unions of an industrial era, these new organizations might not hold monopoly control over a profession or occupational group. Instead, in many cases, multiple guilds can be expected to compete to provide services to a given group of workers.

Laubacher's examples almost all come from information technology, engineering, or other occupations involving highly skilled or specialized workers. Various challenges will need to be addressed as evolving employment models impact other levels of the employment spectrum and undoubtedly will involve significant variations. We can look forward to a more thorough development and application of these ideas to different sectors in a forthcoming book from MIT press: Robert Laubacher, Thomas W. Malone, and Michael S. Scott Morton, Inventing the Organizations of the 21st Century.


Ray Pennings co-founded Cardus in 2000 and currently serves as Executive Vice President, working out of the Ottawa office. Ray has a vast amount of experience in Canadian industrial relations and has been involved in public policy discussions and as a political activist at all levels of government. Ray is a respected voice in Canadian politics, contributing as a commentator, pundit and critic in many of Canada’s leading news outlets and as an advisor and strategist on political campaign teams.