Rebirth of Guilds

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* Five part article series by the FWT Community


By Dr. Charles Grantham with contributions from Norma Owen & Terry Musch Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0)


"This series of blogs traces the history of guilds and the modern forces driving their re-emergence: failure of industrial institutions, technology that speeds up learning, a search for intimate community and the de-evolution of power from the central state. Further, the need for social change is discussed along with a prescription of the functions these new guilds can perform, and those they cannot. We conclude this series with a brief discussion of how modern guilds can offer ownership of the means of social preservation to workers of the future."


A Brief History

Guilds, as a from of social organization for craftsman emerged in Europe in the 13th Century, about the same time universities were born. It seems that they originated as a way to provide social support to skilled workers so the economic forces would not exploit them, and to protect their “secret knowledge”.

There remains some argument today as to whether the guilds central purpose was social (protection and networking) or economic (market protection and exclusion).

Guilds have a long history. There is some evidence that they existed in some form as craft associations dating back to the 3rd Century BC in the Roman Empire and likewise in the Han dynasty. Wherever specialized skill and knowledge built up these associations were formed to focus and organize the practice of their craft. They fell from grace and usefulness as the Industrial Revolution took hold in the 19th Century. In a sense, they were replaced by labor unions and cartels.

In retrospect, and with today’s language, you could say they existed to protect and pass on intellectual property that was created before we had patents, copyrights and associated legal systems. They related to the larger economy as they were places where young people went to learn a trade, find work and we would suggest a supportive social network. This is where apprenticeships, journeyman and masters of craft came from. As you will see later, these basic needs haven’t changed, but new forces are driving our modern “artisans of thought” back to answering a basic need.

Industrialization and capitalism supplanted the needs for guilds through concurrent development of public education, work specialization and routinzation of work tasks. Guilds began to lose influence and disappear as a philosophy of “free trade” and liassez-faire economic theory moved to the forefront. No less than Karl Marx criticized guilds for their rigid social structure.

Degrees replaced certifications of “masterpieces”. Time in class, as measured by “credits” replaced, long apprenticeships. Interestingly, mass industrialization also did away with specific towns being known for the type of work done there as factories spread to locations closest to sources of power and raw material—instead of knowledge. A trend, we would suggest is turning around.

Currently, guilds exist, albeit in diminished form, as the Screen Actors Guild and National Association of Realtors, and of course, legal bar associations in the United States as examples. Above all, in today's world consultants behave very much like the journeyman of old. Traveling, spreading ideas and working with a number of different clients. Most recently we note that online computer gamers have begun to form "player guilds."

Driving Forces

There are several forces, which are driving the rebirth of guilds as a way of organizing talent pools. While there are a myriad of social, economic and political pressures on the 21st Century global economy. We feel four are of particular interest.

· Failure of industrial institutions

After a nearly 500-year lapse, we are seeing fundamental changes in society once again. We believe the printing press was the primary cause of this transformation in the late 15th century. While fantastic inventions and technologies have come along since then, nothing else has come close. Until the Internet. And the Internet is prompting social change of the same nature and magnitude as the printing press as we head into the 21st century (Bressler and Grantham, 2000).

Without a doubt those institutions which served humanity well in the industrial era, have reached the end of their useful life. Just as feudalism fell away with the Enlightenment, and royalty with the rise of the modern nation-state, so too are industrial capitalism, tribal governments and supporting establishments.

· Technology speeds up education and continuous learning

The invention and diffusion of radical technology inevitably changes how we live, work, and learn together as a human race. Technology, especially when it influences how we communicate with each other, causes a change in our sense and experience of time and space. This change, in turn, brings about a change in our mental energy (or how we pay attention to things) and this finally results in a change in how we interact with the world—our behavior.

While the Internet is completely changing corporate business models and how customers can connect with companies, none of this comes close to matching the broader human change we are on the verge of seeing. And we believe we have a precedent for this—the world after the introduction of Johan Gutenberg’s printing press. All the way from E-learning to the Occupy Wall Street movement, we are being led to a Fourth Turning in our global society.

· Search for community that is intimate

It is hard to argue against rise of a sense of need for community around the planet. The Arab Spring, ascendancy of an Asian superpower, crisis in the European “Union” and political gridlock in the United States, all have at their root a renewed sense to work together in community—not against each other in power struggles.

Historically (in the West), community structure that existed in the small villages and towns was traditionally centered around a parish church and one or two eating establishments, where people would gather to be with one another and exchange ideas and thoughts. With the concurrent rise of mercantilism, the wealth that was created in these rural areas were sucked into the larger urban areas where wealth focused on the construction of these large structures and monuments.

The basic unit of social organization, and hence community, was organized by the church. However, the church's penetration into every aspect of community life was not total. Community was based on tradition and it celebrated events that signify the rhythms of agricultural life.

Community was important to people as they entered the industrial age. Community was the social glue that held everything together, gave people hope, and provided them with a psychological anchor in times of trouble. And that's’ where we are again. Just as the world was getting bigger and people felt connected to a broader world, community became much more local and amorphous than it had been when it was decreed from some central authority. Indeed history does repeat itself.

· Devolution of power

We content that political power is devolving from massively centralized structures to a loosely knit network of community federations. During the Middle Ages, government and religion were intertwined. One could not easily separate the two. It depended on the area of the world in which you lived as to which of these two basic social structures had primacy in your everyday life.

So, the sub-plot of this story is that a major impact of the printing press was the beginning of a movement, which continues even today, of the separation of government and religion in terms of how they regulated every man's life. The function of both involves the influence and regulation of behavior and what people can and cannot do. Underlying all of this regulation and control lies a belief system that is agreed-upon and shared. So when belief structures change, eventually so does the governance structure. And at this point in human history, these beliefs are changing once again. Government is next.

The change in government in the Middle Ages, or, more accurately, the government structure of society, was generally a move from a feudal form to empires and nation states. Society began to organize itself around shared believes, fears, values, and desires as a group that was significantly larger than what they had been able to experience directly in one day’s travel time. The underlying value shift that occurred was that people went from protecting the territory and resources surrounding them to focusing on upholding their beliefs and controlling what mattered most to them. So people went from standing at the gates to ward off invaders, to looking further out—hoping their beliefs would be adopted by others so their common culture could grow in size.

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What type of government will emerge that supports purpose driven behavior; intentional action for the larger good; a future orientation’ and more symbolic communication? We don’t quite know yet, but it will be vastly different from our collective experience of the past 500 years.

Social Change

The basic structure of work behavior is changing. Our society (at least the developed world) is moving away from an industrial model to a community-based model, which strangely resembled how we organized ourselves—before the Industrial Revolution. So, it’s back to the future of work. These medieval work organizations were called guilds and they were a central fact of economic life for centuries.

Specially organized groups known as guilds exercised control of economic life in the Middle Ages. The essential purpose of guilds was to create monopolies. They tried to exclude from the local market so far as possible, both the outside trader and the independent trader inside who was not a member of the guild. Their social attitude was to some extent influenced by the church, but their aim was to use the town market peacefully, profitably, and pleasantly for themselves alone[1].

A research group at MIT conducted a broad sweeping analysis of future trends of work in late 1999. One of the key features they saw emerging was the re-emergence of guilds to help organize and protect those workers we have discussing.

These early organizations represent only a beginning. If flexible working arrangements of various sorts become even more common in the future, we will need much more extensive ways of meeting the human needs of the individuals who work in them. It is common, in our industrial age mindset, to assume that meeting these needs is the responsibility of the employer, the government, or the individuals themselves.

What Guilds Could Do

But what if there was a new kind of organization whose purpose was not to produce any specific product, but instead, to meet the human needs of their members, which were not met in any other way?

These guilds could provide a stable home for their members as they moved from job to job. They could, for example, help their members by:

v Ensuring their financial security,

v Providing placement and professional training services,

v Becoming a locus of social interaction and identification.

Guilds appear to be an especially promising way of addressing two challenges. First, by providing insurance and pensions; professional development and placement programs; and access to a social milieu, guilds can allow workers to take advantage of flexible employment relationships--and the potential for greater productivity they offer--without having to face high risks and unattractive social repercussions.

Second, by emphasizing continuous learning for their members and the matching of workers' skills with available opportunities, the interests of guilds will be closely aligned with those of the companies for which the guilds' members will work.

This new approach has the potential to radically change the terms of debates that have been central to the industrial age. Today, for instance, collective bargaining is a primary role of many unions, and we typically assume that the interests of unions and management will be in conflict. In a world of flexible networks of one-person companies, however, there would often be no stable centralized management with which unions could bargain, even if they wanted to. An attractive opportunity for unions in the future, therefore, is to move toward fulfilling the needs of their members in the guild-like ways we have described. In general, we believe there are opportunities for many kinds of organizations—professional societies, unions, neighborhoods, colleges, churches, and others--to be creative and proactive in meeting needs that are likely to become increasingly urgent as flexible working arrangements become more common.

At the same time, guilds cannot magically provide better pay or benefits for workers who lack skills or bargaining power. For the same reasons that very low skilled workers are not attractive job candidates, they will also be unattractive candidates for joining guilds. But in guilds based on shared interests such as family ties, place of residence, or religious beliefs, economic considerations would be less important in determining who can join.

Ownership of the Means of Preservation

A return to guilds as an organizing force for the worker of the future will bring with it another medieval institution: a return of ownership of means of production to the individual. In our surveys of distributed workers over the years, we have noted a consistent finding. Workers report that the technology they have in their home offices is more advanced and sophisticated than what their employers provide in the central office.

In fact, many report that they ‘save the toughest jobs for home’ because they have better tools. As technology has become commoditized, individuals can afford to own the fastest, latest and most robust equipment. No longer must a worker depend on his employer giving him/her the tools they need to do their job. They have their own. So, if these creatives have their own telecommunications, computers, databases, cell phones and meeting places; what do they need in terms of infrastructure form an ‘employer’?

Expecting workers to bring their own tools to the job could radically re-shape how corporations look at the management of hard assets. Why should they purchase and maintain them, when perhaps 30% of the workforce can be assumed to have their own?

The return to guilds, as a way of organizing work communities, has tremendous implications for the provision of services to workers. Our old industrial model has been that companies provide workers with everything they need to do the job: office space, technology, and management support – including health care, pensions and training. But guilds provide all that for workers.

Talent Integration Ecosystems

So, if our scenario plays out then companies will find themselves in the envious position of shedding the responsibility of providing human resource services, technology infrastructure and facilities. Think of the impact this could have. You could literally cut your operational expenses in half for 30-40% of the workforce. All this and community too! But wait, what’s the dark side for companies and what will they have to do to counteract loosening their social ties with workers?

In short, their death. Loosening these community’s ties implies a growing lack of engagement between worker and companies. These companies have historically existed to find, organize and focus the energy and talent of people who add value in the process of innovation, manufacture and distribution of goods and services. Some form of human organization will be required to step in and fill that gap. As we have suggested above, that organization we believe will be a re-birth of guild structures. Just what will that look like? It’s hard to say at this writing. The closest we can envision is something like the “Occupy” movement spreading across the planet. We prefer to focus on what it will do to fill the void, instead of what it will look like. We suggest thinking of a Talent Integration Ecosystem (TIE). There are eight things we think the TIE’s will do that companies and large formal organizations have done during the Industrial era. It will be the social psychological engine of value creation in the future.

Purpose finding

This is the function of helping people find their true purpose. Almost a spiritual activity, purpose finds is about answering the age old human condition questions: “Why am I here and what am I supposed to do?” It is our contention that TIE’s will step up and be the Community that guides, coaches and provides support to people on the journey towards living out purpose.

Strengths analysis

Instead of approaching human development from a perspective of “deficit reduction”, TIE guilds will move from a position of individual strength. “What do you do best?” “What can you do better than others?” There are many pathways towards this end. TIE’s will be the place where people can get the tools, analytical frameworks and methods to find their strengths.


The next step up the ladder toward the vision of potential is motivation. What is my passion? What do you feel “called” to do? Each person has a different set of motivations. Understanding these is a key to success and a feeling of fulfillment. Sorting out needs from wants will be central to moving from a society characterized by consumerism to one of collaborative intention.

Futures Search

How does one get to this personal end state. Our belief is that you have to be eternally vigilant, constantly scanning the environment for signals of change. It short, how does one become ultimately flexible and agile? You need to establish a sensing capability that reaches out, pulls in information, sorts it, sifts it and continuously re-paints a picture of the future. Searching the future horizon is the basic input to directed change. There are many ways of doing this. People can be taught techniques of future searching, but first they need to be motivated to spend the time and energy doing this.

Education and competencies

TIE’s will replace our traditional education system. Enabled by technology that let’s people separated in time and space to learn together, these social learning systems operate of development of “competencies”, not skills. The lines between learning and working will disappear. They will become blended. Certificates of service (which we call degrees and resumes) will no longer be enough to place people in a innovation economy where they can contribute the maximum. Again tightly coupled social guilds will become the mechanism.


We think that that actual mechanism for doing these things will look much more like internships where doing and being are combined on a day to day basis. Time spent under the tutelage of “masters of the craft” will be the answer to “how to do it”. We have spoken elsewhere of the emergence of “artisans of thought” as a detailed picture of this process. You become an artisan of thought through a process of internship—again guided along the way by a TIE.


On the other side of this equation is the process of mentoring, or coaching. The guides will be the older members of society who mature purpose is to pass on the wisdom and knowledge amassed over a lifetime. But there has to be a linkage between mentors and mentees. It used to be done on a haphazard fashion in our universities and companies. A new way of building these social networks is emerging.

Continuous learning

The last step in this process will be continuously learning. Much has been said about this topic in the past few decades, but most of the talk has been about skills and discrete abilities. We see the need in a much broader context. Skills yes, but also continuous learning about intellectual, social and spiritual capacities.

Weaving the Social Fabric of 21st Century Communities

There are many threads weaving together in this world of the future. As we have alluded to before, it is a rebirth of a social organization called guilds. We also contend that these new guilds will organize in a new and modern way via Talent Integration Ecosystem. This discussion itself could (and should) be a long one. Here, we just want to give you an overview to engage your thinking. So, to summarize, here’s a capsule of our vision.

The purpose of these new guilds is to develop local talent in a way that meets the needs of citizens, commerce and communities are sustainable.

They will add value to our communities system by:

  • A continuously adaptive system to produce a sustainable talent pool. Things won’t stand still so these ecosystems have to have an inherent capability to keep moving, changing and evolving. And that means always spending time, money and energy looking to the future.
  • An increase in community well-being so that it becomes a magnet for talent. Not only do you want to keep your homegrown talent in the community, but also you want to make it extremely attractive for others to move there.
  • A unique identity. This really is community brand management. What is unique that makes people proud to say that’s where they live and work? You have a unique identity when people start printing the name and identity on T-shirts and baseball caps.

Elements of the System

A number of organizations and entities needs to be brought together share a common purpose and act in a collaborative fashion. These are the base elements of your ecosystem. And this is where it gets difficult. A number of the old institutions are dying because they have lost their relevance to the emerging world. So, it’s hard to talk about something that is needed when we don’t have words for the components. We prefer to use a metaphor from chemistry and call them atoms and molecules. You need certain kinds of atoms to combine and make a talent integration ecosystem molecule.

  • A learning atom. Traditionally these have been high schools, colleges and universities. Not anymore. Teachers, mentors and learners connected by technology. It needs visibility and a place for people to connect.
  • Social service atoms. This is the “Heart” of the community. Usually civic groups, faith based organizations and self-help organizations. They are now becoming self-organized groups with limited half-lives. They come and go, but the leaders usually move from one issue to another as the evolving need dictates.
  • An expressive atom. The arts and culture part of your community. If you don’t have an active one, you are dead. This is the soul of your ecosystem. Art in all its forms (performing, visual and emerging media) serves to satisfy a basic human instinct for harmony, balance, and rhythm. It communicates the experience of mystery in the community.
  • A structural atom. This is the atom, which puts in place, and maintains a persistent pattern of interaction among and between community members. Usually seen as micro-social units of neighborhoods and/or ethnic based organizations. Today we call them “grass roots” groups.
  • A regenerative atom. This is the “sustainable” component. It serves the function of preserving the physical environment including critical resources such as air, water, and land. We like to think of this as the part that can provide the necessities of human life without a heavy dependence of external resources.

Action focus areas

Once you have these “atoms” in place in the talent integration ecosystem they need to do something. What’s their functional purpose? WE believe this ecosystem has five basic functions to perform.

Promotion of citizen involvement—everyone in the community needs to be involved. This is the reach out find the resources you need within the community. If it isn’t there right now, how do you go back and rely on the “learning atom” to produce the talent you need? It takes a great deal of involvement. Without this involvement and commitment the systems stagnates.

Job creation through entrepreneurial projects — creation and innovation are the key processes. Central to any community is an economic activity that produces more wealth (economic, social and spiritual) than it consumes. We are suggesting that this takes a post-industrial form of “business of one”—or at least a very few. Call them “micro-businesses”, but grow WITHIN the community.

'Purpose finding for people '— you can't get there without truly knowing why you are on the journey. This function is often overlooked. Finding purpose is a personal journey now. No longer does a family, a church, or a school give your purpose to you. Your personal journey now is finding your calling and learning how to live out that calling within the context of your local community.

'Organizational leadership development '— new competencies will be needed by those who lead the process. We see “gaming” as a metaphor for organization coming forward. And leaders in the gaming world are quite a bit different than traditional leaders. It’s multi-generational, cross gender and multidisciplinary in thinking.

Fundraising for local facilities — the financial and emotional resources needed for this process should come from the community itself. This will be the key to sustainability. The talent integration ecosystem must produce wealth in excess of what it needs to survive. It can either re-invest this excess into local capacity building, or export a portion in exchange for other goods and services.

How do you build a new guild?

The fundamental activity of the guild is building increased social capital capacity inside the community. One of the core principles is that people in the community need to be the central actors in this process. Outside resources merely provide ideas, tools and connections. Local citizens accomplish the work itself. We think there are six major sets of competencies, which are required. These competencies make up the “curriculum” for the learning atom if you will.

Several areas are addressed simultaneously:

  • Communications skills—learning how to listen, talk to each other and engage in civil dialog. Meeting management—how to help and facilitate group decision-making.
  • Community organizing—how to be inclusive in your community social engagement management.
  • Entrepreneurship—what it really means to be creative, independent and free of history in your economic activities.
  • Leadership development—continuously and consciously creating more leadership capability and knowing how and when to shift these responsibilities given the needs of the moment.
  • Adaptive Planning—always looking forward. Having people who are scouts to the future and visionary in the long term.

Measures of Success

It’s often said that you can’t measure it, you can’t measure it. We prefer a slightly different metaphor of flying an airplane. You need to know your direction, your altitude and your speed to do basic navigation of getting from where you are to where you want to go. For us direction translates into an economic development program; altitude is your community experience factors; and speed is the amount of direct service your talent integration ecosystem provides.

In sum:

  • Economic Development: Job growth, Population change, Ecosystem quality, Education level, Crime rates, Housing affordability, Health care access
  • Community Experience: Social diversity, Performing arts support, Civic involvement, Social action programs, Recreational variety and access, Level of faith based organizational involvement
  • Direct Service: Number of workshops hosted, Number of participants, Number of business plans authored, Number of businesses in operation at 24 month time-frame."


Examples of it working

When we begin to discuss these ideas, people always ask for examples. Here’s the ones we have right now. These are “guild” based communities that we have, or are, working with to bring forth the vision, this blog series has developed.

  • Past
  1. Hagenberg, Austria (
  2. Jamtland, Sweden (

  • Present
  1. Dexter Neighborhood, Prescott, AZ
  2. Western Region, MI (

  • Future
  1. Mesa del Sol, Albuquerque, NM (

More Information

Books to Read

Consumer Evolution (2007) Grantham, C. and Carr, J., John Wiley, NY

The Coming Jobs War (2011) Clifton, J., Gallup Press, NY

When the Boomers Bail (2011) Lautman, M., Logan Square, Albuquerque, NM