Serfs up?

Who remembers 10th grade world history? Somewhere between the Roman Empire and the industrial revolution, my history teacher devoted a couple of days to the feudal system (oh, how we laughed and laughed). As I remember it, the feudal system dealt with serfs and nobility – and you didn’t want to be a serf.

Here’s a description from wikipedia:

“Feudalism refers to a general set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility of Europe during the Middle Ages, revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals, and fiefs.

Defining feudalism requires many qualifiers because there is no broadly accepted agreement of what it means. In order to begin to understand feudalism, a working definition is desirable. The definition described in this article is the most senior and classic definition and is still subscribed to by many historians.

However, other definitions of feudalism exist. Since at least the 1960s, many medieval historians have included a broader social aspect, adding the peasantry bonds of Manorialism, referred to as a “feudal society.” Still others, since the 1970s, have re-examined the evidence and concluded that feudalism is an unworkable term and should be removed entirely from scholarly and educational discussion, or at least only used with severe qualification and warning.”
(Wow. Severe qualification and warning. That is initimidating.)

What it all comes down to is that for a long period of time, large groups of people were treated like commodities – they served a purpose, but one warm body was just as good as another.

Hundreds of years later, this situation was improved upon to a large degree thanks to industrialization and labor unions. To the point that every now and then we encounter someone espousing personal brands – the idea that every one of us has the opportunity to be relevant and differentiated, staking out a brand position that is unique and owned by said individual. This certainly can be the case for CEOs, some professional athletes, and celebrities of the entertainment variety, but can it apply to the typical company employee?

It’s my observation that while more and more organizations look to differentiate themselves as employers, there is only occasional reciprocity when it comes to viewing employees as more than a commodity. Granted, the act of developing an employer brand implies that companies want the best employees, but is that tacit recognition of the unique value of every individual, or simply a commodity subgroup?

There is certainly a body of evidence that points to the latter. Outsourcing and off-shoring of entire departments, attraction strategies based primarily on price-point, and recruitment based on quantity rather than quality exacerbate the situation.

And let’s not forget the job description. The very nature of the job description relegates a vast category of individuals to a commodity substratum. A typical job description may speak in general or even specific terms about roles, responsibilities, and requirements, but how often does it give equal weight to attributes that are less tangible – attributes that might be embodied in a personal brand?

Now I get that much of this is driven by very practical concerns, or that there are more informal, almost organic interactions that leave open the possibility of elevating employees beyond commodity. My point however, is two-fold. First, let’s not get carried away with the portability of the brand concept. Second, the breakdown of the employer/employee compact and the arrival of free agent nation brought more challenges for employees than it did opportunities.


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Thomas Delorme
Written by Thomas Delorme

VP, Digital Products & Strategy


  1. Melanie

    I note the comments have dropped from an alltime high of 2 back down to 0. Perhaps your blog is becoming a commodity?

    I, for one, enjoy reading your blog. I hope that comments are a measure of success, and offer my one comment accordingly.

  2. John G

    I was allowed to give up history when I was 14 so have a huge appetite for it now – so enjoyed the feudal story/link/whatever – seems viable enough…anyway, individual employees are in fact encouraged to develop “identity” – intranet tools like sharepoint enable this (private microsites and customisable work/play groups). I feel you’re underselling your wares; on the one hand you love your employer branding but on the other you question a) whether a brand would work for a lowly employee (bit patronising n’est-ce pas?) and b) whether the brand concept stretches well enough to employees/ers. Time for lunch and a quietened room where I can work out what I mean.

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