From corporations to guilds
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #73

The knowledge economy will not only insinuate itself into the existing structure of industry, it will cause major changes. One of the most interesting will be in the organisation of people. Instead of gathering around stores of monetary capital - forming corporations - they shall follow banks of knowledge capital. As it is people themselves that make - that are - knowledge capital, they shall group together, forming structures remarkably similar to mediaeval guilds.

Conventional corporations are unsuited to the knowledge business for several reasons. Their very premise is based upon the need for monetary capital and its efficient use. They are careful, therefore, about monetary liquidity, and concerned about adjusting their other requirements to suit capital flows. When these requirements include knowledge, such concern implies the subjugation of knowledge to monetary capital. Companies try, having gathered diverse sources of knowledge together, to match their resources to the demand. When they fail, as their sources of knowledge - people - have been frozen in a once-necessary grouping, they seek help from management consultants. This is natural, for they have the wrong point of view for a knowledge economy. Companies view the economy from the point of view of capital, which forms the framework of the world today.

If knowledge were the framework of the economy, then resources would find themselves allocated according to the demand for, and supply of, knowledge of different forms. Rather than pools of capital attracting diverse knowledge resources, pools of knowledge would attract diverse sources of monetary capital. Rather than disparate sources of knowledge - people with different, occasionally complementary expertise - following the demands of capital, complementary sources of capital would follow the ebb and flow of knowledge.

Instead of joining and leaving companies as their knowledge requirements change, people would then organize themselves by their affinity to knowledge. Similar knowledge would group similar people in a 21st century version of 15th century guilds, while capital, in turn, would join and leave as the monetary requirements of a knowledge pool changed.

Capital would not freeze knowledge resources by asking them to come together in relationships that seemed useful, but were so only at an instant. People would form a long- term relationship only in guilds, where it is useful practically forever. "Complementary" bondings would come about, with the aid of capital-on-demand, only when necessary; they would easily terminate when no longer useful.

This shift of viewpoint from capital to knowledge could have dramatic effects, rather more than a change in terminology. Guilds are quite different from companies, and their creation will have a considerable impact. Most importantly, guilds would simplify models for trade in knowledge. Members would feel more comfortable about non- monetary trade - including implicit transactions, reputation-based currencies, and various forms of barter - with other members than outsiders. The purpose of a guild is, after all, to impart a sense of confidence in members, an assurance that others will not exploit one's unpaid contributions.

These unusual models of trade match the unusual nature of knowledge. They are needed for, and are also the eventual result of, a free flow of knowledge. If they involve a restructuring of the way people work today, so much the better. And it is one of the surprises of the new economy that, in this shift from the free flow of money to the free flow of knowledge, we shall see the reincarnation of an institution always associated with restraint.

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