BIZ: 21st Century Worker's Guild

From: Chris Rasch (
Date: Mon Feb 19 2001 - 14:13:32 MST

Flexible Work Arrangements and 21st Century Worker's Guilds
Robert J. Laubacher and Thomas W. Malone
Initiative on Inventing the Organizations of the 21st Century
Working Paper #004
Sloan School of Management
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
October 1997

The job has taken a beating in recent years--it appears to have been
one of the major casualties of the corporate restructuring which swept
through the U.S. economy in the early 1990s. Most Americans know
someone whose position has been downsized or outsourced, and a series
of high-profile articles in prominent publications have suggested that
"good" jobs--those offering health insurance and a pension, along with
a prospect for advancement--are increasingly relics of the past.[1]

This attention has been spurred by the rapid increase in the use of
temporary employees--the number of positions filled by temporary
agencies more than doubled during the first half of the 1990s--and by
many highly-visible instances of corporate downsizing and
outsourcing.[2] In fast-growing, knowledge-intensive sectors of the
economy, such as high technology and entertainment, skilled workers
increasingly operate outside the framework of traditional jobs
altogether. Instead they work as independent contractors, establishing
ongoing relationships with a number of different firms.[3]

Many observers believe that highly flexible organizational
forms--often called networked organizations or virtual
corporations--will become increasingly common in the future. In our
research at MIT, for example, we have examined scenarios in which
temporary networks of very small companies and independent contractors
could undertake much of the work that is performed by large
organizations today.[4]

In many situations, these new ways of working result in much greater
economic efficiency and flexibility. But what about the individuals in
these flexible networks? Where will they go to fulfill the human needs
that are satisfied today by large organizations? How, for instance,
will they find financial security? Who will provide for their health
care and retirement? Will they be lonely, working all day with their
customers and suppliers, but never with colleagues?

The current conversation on these issues is highly polarized. One
viewpoint, espoused by much of the business press and many
conservative politicians, focuses on the benefits of flexible work
arrangements, while de-emphasizing their human costs. The other
stance, favored by many union leaders and liberal politicians,
emphasizes the human costs, without acknowledging that the new
arrangements are often more productive ways of organizing work.

Once we began thinking about these questions, we realized that there
was an obvious--but not widely appreciated--possibility for answering
them. What if, rather than relying on an employer or the government to
meet their human needs, individual workers joined independent
organizations whose primary purpose was to provide stable "homes" as
they moved from job to job? We call these organizations "guilds" by
analogy to the craft associations of the Middle Ages, and in this
paper we examine what they might do and how they might emerge.

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