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The rise of the guilds

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A ManagementSpeak from 2008: “This is an opportunity to expand your value to the organization and build your career.” The translation: Budget cuts prevent us from hiring the people we need, so we’re increasing your responsibilities and workload (and thanks to Peter Bushman for spotting and translating it).

In 2008, and for who knows how long before that, the promise of career advancement … the promise, not the delivery … has been enough to encourage initiative and hard work delivered in unpaid overtime, donated by career-minded employees in the expectation that the promise will be fulfilled.

Making the promise has no budget impact, a fact many managers take advantage of. And as the actual promotion depends on a more senior or management position being open, failing to fulfill the promise is never the promiser’s fault.

Smart leaders do their best to deliver on the promise, and not make promises they can’t keep. They’re smart, that is, if initiative comes in the form of useful ideas and the hard work and unpaid overtime are executed well.

The career-advancement promise is, that is, contingent on the delivery of high-value results. If ideas are foolish and work is of poor quality? That’s a case of more not always being better, and ought to result in a candid conversation. Employees deserve an explanation of how and why their results don’t qualify.

No fraud, no harm, no foul. It’s a formula that can work well for all parties.

But imagine the workplace evolves as suggested in this space last week, with employees eschewing traditional forms of career advancement. It might be wanting just a job and not a career. It might be a more radical shift away from employment altogether, as people figure out how to piece together a rewarding life and the wherewithal to live it by contracting, by driving for Lyft and Uber, and otherwise signing up for the “gig economy.”

Whatever it is, an unfortunate consequence (for management) is less reason for employees to show initiative, let alone to donate unpaid hours to the CEO’s retirement fund. “An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay,” is more likely to dominate employee culture than “We give it 110 percent.”

On the other side of the coin, if fewer employees have career aspirations that means, if we’re going to be cynical about it, that managers have more opportunities to dangle in front of the remaining employees who still do. It’s simple math: fewer employees will be competing for roughly the same number of career-advancing positions, so their odds improve.

But what if you’re in the workforce and don’t want the Hobson’s Choice of either climbing the career ladder at the expense of living the life you want, or living the life you want without the sense of personal achievement that has, in the past come from career advancement?

Right now the best you can probably do is sign up with one or more IT services firms that specialize in providing contract talent to their clients. As you succeed in your assignments your billing rate will track your level of accomplishment, as will the title next to your name: The Role you’re sold as being competent in, prefixed by nothing, “Senior,” or “Master.” Along with the prefix comes increasing difficulty and level of interest in the assignments you take on.

Bob’s last word: We are, I think, in the middle of a major transition in how businesses and the workforce relate to each other. The current state of this transition is what we’ve been exploring last week and here.

But we shouldn’t confuse the current state with the end point. If current trends continue, my own forecast is that this will all evolve into the reincarnation of the guild.

A guild, in case you’re unfamiliar with the term, is a membership-based home for practitioners of a trade. It has some characteristics of a union, others of credentialing bodies, along with the role services firms now play in finding work for the professionals they represent.

Companies needing staff with a particular set of skills would no longer go through the dysfunctional recruiting process they and the targets of their potential affection are currently afflicted with. Instead they’d contact the relevant guild, which would be responsible for providing appropriately skilled workers, invoicing for their services, and paying the workers for their time and effort.

This doesn’t mean “employment” would be entirely a relic of a quaint and rosy past. I do think we’ll see a significant shift in this direction.

Bob’s sales pitch: CIO.com has published the second of three articles on Technical Architecture in my IT 101 series. You’ll find it here: “Evaluating technical architecture: 11 key criteria and how to apply them.” If you need to catch up, you’ll find the first technical architecture article in the series here: “Technical architecture: What IT does for a living.”

Comments (3)

  • Christians give their best to their masters.

    If CxOs would turn from their evil woke nonsense and foster a Christian environment and hire more Christians then they would do fantastically better with their organizations.

  • I have been in the IT world, In my limited, unscientific observation, changing jobs/employers every two years maximizes income and roles. Although the higher we move, the longer we stay. And the bigger the bump when we move.

    My guess is it is similar in other areas, but my view in to that is not as good.

    The Guild concept is an interesting one. And has merit.

    In my mind, to make it work, we would be looking at a wholesale shift from W2 (crappy contractor roles) to 1099 (crappy “consultant” roles).

    To make this work, the Guild would have to offer some assistance with business side of things (being great at something is not the same as being great at running a business…even your own).

    It is an interesting concept.

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