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27 March 2012

On Guilds in Modern Times

The History Lesson
A guild is an association of craftsmen in a particular trade (Wikipedia.)

 Guilds were usually organisations that had an early form of accreditation and membership, often in the form of something called “letters patents” issues by the local lord. The result of this is an exclusive right to deal in a particular area. The guild would charge members a fee to join, and in return members would receive a right to practice their craft within certain jurisdictions.

As ‘professional’ organisations members would swear an oath of allegiance to the guild, much like members of modern organisations like PMI sign on to an ethics standard that implies certain behaviours and allegiances to the profession above and beyond the guild members’ other obligations to the customers.

Guilds ensured their dominance over labour markets by ensuring certain quality and performance standards were met through professional standards and through the apprentice, journeyman, master model. This model had a variety of consequences including the control of labour which ensured premium wages for guild members, and eventually a proliferation of specialisations within the guild.

This fragmentation eventually led to the end of guild dominance of the professions, as subgroups competed for dominance in their market.

There is a general view that the guild was essentially a racket which stifled innovation and creativity within industries. It was a classic example of the status-quo maintaining it’s power rather than seeking advancement in skills and techniques that would benefit the industry and the community it served. Guilds primarily served their members to the disadvantage of both later generations and the community or customers they serviced.

The Guilds of Today 
Today many guilds still exist, especially in the creative industries. Some guilds wield large amounts of power, such as the groups that manage and protect the interests (including intellectual property) of writers and artists.

We can see that guilds can still be overly focused on the short term goals of protecting the status-quo over being responsive to future members and the communities they purport to serve.

Newer guilds (like in the software craftsmanship movement) don’t tend to have the tremendous amount of power and influence that large and established guilds demonstrate and wield, but they clearly have that tendency.

So when we talk about guilds in the software craftsmanship or IT domain what do we mean?

The term was pressed into duty because we wanted to draw on the strengths of the master-apprentice model. We want to acknowledge that the most effective way to transmit complex knowledge or knowledge of complex information is through mentorship, and oral tradition.

I have two questions out of all this;

  1. Are we stealing the word and re purposing it? Or are we in the business of building up a power base with a view to protecting member interests over the world around us? 
  2. Is the Master Apprentice model the best one for where we want to go, and are the assumptions that underlie it valid? Can you help?