“Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.”
Yoda to Luke in “The Empire Strikes Back”
Michael Malone’s “The Future Arrived Yesterday: The Rise of the Protean Corporation and What it Means for You.” was published in May of 2009. It offers a vision of the future of the corporation that builds on his earlier “Virtual Corporation,” written with Bill Davidow, and “Bill and Dave.” The last book offers a number of unique insights into the success of Hewlett Packard and supplies complementary information to David Packard’s “The HP Way,” another book that is well worth reading.
There is a good 15-25 page article in “The Future Arrived Yesterday” but I don’t know that I can recommend reading it before you have read “Bill and Dave” and “The HP Way.” There are a few key ideas that I think are coming true. As Marcelo Rinesi has observed, “The future is an abstraction, all change is happening now,” and we can see the shape of the future today.
Proteus was a shape changing sea god in Greek Mythology. Wikipedia advises:
From this feature of Proteus comes the adjective protean, with the general meaning of “versatile”, “mutable”, “capable of assuming many forms”. “Protean” has positive connotations of flexibility, versatility and adaptability.
Malone starts out with 6 premises:
- The pace of technological change will continue; Moore’s Law will continue to drive semiconductor technology for at least another decade.
- The number of consumers in the world economy will triple to three billion by 2015, thanks to the Internet and cheap mobile phones.
- Industrialized nations, but especially the United States, are becoming more entrepreneurial.
- A new generation of young people, with different attitudes toward institutions and authority, is entering the workforce.
- Companies, by their very nature, want to grow and endure.
- Human nature has not changed.
He identifies two forces at work that will transform these premises over time:
- Centrifugal forces that are pulling corporations apart: technology, culture, and demographics.
- Centripetal forces that are drawing corporations together: human needs for socialization, commitment to a larger purpose, continuity and constancy, and a sense of legacy.
This leads to a “Protean structure” of:
- A small core of employees with real guarantees of a lifetime job. Perhaps a few dozen to a few hundred employees.
- An inner ring of “regular employees who look like today’s regular employees. They don’t have a lifetime employment guarantee (but then very few do). Perhaps 10-20% of the total employee count.
- An outer ring (or Cloud) of temporary workers of all sorts. They may have contracts or a relationship that may last from a few hours to a decade or more, while monthly turnover may reach 50%. This is 80-90% of the employees.
This looks a lot like an early stage startup:, a few founders, a handful of full time employees, and much of the work performed by contractors or consultants or a variety of highly specialized business process outsourcers.
Successful companies of the future must find a way to continuously and rapidly change almost every one of their attributes–products, services, finance, physical plant, markets, customers, and both tactical and strategic goals–yet at the same time retain a core of values, customs, legends, and philosophy that will be little affected by the continuous and explosive changes taking place just beyond its edges.
Key take-aways for startups.
- Read the “The HP Way“
- Read “Bill and Dave.“
- Plan for global competition and a global workforce from the get go.
- Give some thought to the key values that will shape your culture, and ultimately your competitive posture and your ability to attract new employees.
- Understand where you fit in the clouds of other enterprises and how they can be the source of not only revenue but partnerships based on shared development of offerings that are core to your firm and important but off strategy for the larger firm.