Historical craft guilds, as a mode of industrial organization, survived for more than half a millennium until the time of the Industrial Revolution. It is often assumed that the failure of guilds to embrace the technological innovations brought about by mass production led to their eventual demise. The term “Luddite” itself arose from disenfranchised English craftsmen whose violent backlash against the wave of mass production equipment (and people) reinforced the perception of guilds as throwbacks to technological progress and modern industry. As mentioned in Part 1 of this blog, recent research notes that:
“They [guilds] did not fail as a form of economic organization but rather by deliberate acts of government, unions, and by the rapid expansion of wage labor and the shift in numerical balance from skilled to unskilled labor.”
So why now the return of the guilds? My contention is that the dynamics of historical craft guilds holds some potentially useful insights into organizing today’s diverse and skilled creatives. I use the term “creatives” more loosely here than conventional definitions that restrict the term to occupations usually associated with creative vocations such as (artists, sculptors, artisans, designers, architects, etc). For example, today’s creatives include those self-identified “makers” who produce objects with the latest digital fabrication tools such as 3d printers. Such individuals may hold “day” jobs in what we might traditionally define as “non-creative” but they nonetheless strive for opportunities for creative expression. “Creatives” can also include what has been identified as “pro-ams”, professional amateurs like passionate hobbyists, “garage” tinkerers, and even scientists who stray into more artistic endeavors, among others. In other words, the term “creatives” when applied in this fashion might represent a deep pool of underutilized talent for innovation.
Guilds 2.0 - A novel value-creation and value-capture system
In a 2005 publication by the Kauffman Foundation “Understanding Entrepreneurship”, Professor Scott Stern (winner of the first Kauffman Prize Medal for Distinguished Research in Entrepreneurship) wrote:
“An organizational experiment is the development and implementation of a novel value-creation and value-capture system. Organizational experimentation links individuals and organizations in the pursuit of exploiting the interaction between market and technical opportunities. In sharp contrast to the canonical image of a lone inventor single-mindedly pursuing as technical vision, entrepreneurs pursuing organizational experiments must assemble and appropriate incentives and a coordination for a larger team.”
Guilds 2.0, in my opinion, potentially represents such a novel value-creation and value-capture organizational experiment. The recent wave of lower-cost, higher quality personal manufacturing tools may, over time, shift power back to the “owners” of the skills (i.e., the “creatives”) away from the owners of the capital. This pronouncement is not meant to be a neo-Marxist class struggle worldview but rather an observation that skilled creatives may find new opportunities for enterprise in an economic sector long dominated by massive and centralized production factories.
Today, the term “guilds” generally refers to collectives of actors, arts and crafts practitioners, and many other artistic groups and associations. These “guilds” serve diverse purposes ranging from outright labor unions to community-based groups of independent artists. The popularity of guilds in massively multiplayer online role-playing games or “MMORPG” such as World of Warcraft is a more recent phenomenon some of which adopt historical guild practices such as apprenticeship training.
Guilds 2.0, in my view, differs from these collectives in some very fundamental ways. First and foremost, Guilds 2.0 should be designed as an organizational experiment to promote and accelerate “collective” innovation and develop market opportunities for its members. Though creatives always have the freedom to independently pursue their entrepreneurial self-interests, the advantages of working in tandem with other creatives with complementary skills, tacit knowledge and access to tools can be equally compelling, if not outright more commercially attractive. This is especially true when larger and more complex “commissioned works” and projects are beyond the capacity and skills of a single independent creative.
In Part 3 of the Creatives Guild blog, I will describe some basic components of Guild 2.0 structure.