August 27, 2009 / 5:41 PM / 9 years ago

Business Books: Author sees future for cloud companies

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Twenty years ago, the idea that technology would be at the center of business was still part of the future. Computers were just starting to land on desks as fledgling companies like Microsoft Corp and Apple Inc said their products would change the way we work.

The cover of "The Future Arrived Yesterday, the Rise of the Protean Corporation and what it Means for You" by Michael Malone is seen in this handout photo. REUTERS/Handout

Back then, Michael Malone co-authored a book called “The Virtual Corporation,” describing the future as adaptive, driven by technology and global in reach.

Now, in the age of constant communication and social networking, Malone has written “The Future Arrived Yesterday, the Rise of the Protean Corporation and what it Means for You” (Crown Business, $27.50) as a kind of update.

While business has changed in radical ways, with computers and smartphones always tethered to the Internet, Malone argues that companies have not changed fast enough.

Employees have changed radically from who they were 20 years ago thanks to new technology, but today’s companies “no longer reflect who we are now.”

Increased mobility, both technologically and in terms of career, is another factor shaping companies.

“We accept that working at home or as a road warrior or as a part of a global virtual work team entails a certain loneliness and detachment,” writes Malone.

Companies, he argues, need to change — radically — to keep ahead.

Malone points to IBM, Apple, and Cisco Systems, all of whom have changed their core business to meet future needs, as examples of what he calls protean corporations — those that are versatile and can change their form, appearance or behavior.

Unlike traditional companies made up of long-term employees, a protean corporation has many layers. A small group of long-term employees at the center understand and guide strategy and culture. A middle ring, consisting of salaried workers with benefits, manage day-to-day operations. And an outer ring, or cloud, consists of freelancers, contractors, and suppliers.

Extreme examples are Facebook, Wikipedia and MySpace — each with a solid, small core of administrators who set standards and maintain technical and cultural quality. The rest of the business is operated by a cloud of users who add content and only sometimes participate in the company’s operations.

The cloud will be made up of employees “whose connection to the company can range from ironclad to tenuous, whose understanding of the company’s business and culture can be anything from complete to indifferent, and whose contact with you may last for decades or just a matter of minutes,” he writes.

While the core of any protean business should be vital, they are, in the end, people of the past. According to Malone: “It is the rest of us who represent the future, who embody change.”

For those who doubt Malone’s vision of the future, another new book, “Dirty Rotten Strategies” (Stanford University Press, $24.95), highlights a major flaw in organizations of the present.

Authors Ian Mitroff and Abraham Silvers say companies expend time, energy and money devising perfect solutions — to the wrong problems.

Reporting by Ian Sherr; Editing by Eddie Evans

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