The Rise of Business Shape-Shifters

The Future Arrived Yesterday by Mike Malone

As you may know, especially if you read the review two days ago in the Wall Street Journal, I have a new book out called The Future Arrived Yesterday.

Depending upon how you count authorships, co-authorships, collections and anthologies, this is something like my 16th book – a bookshelf full of volumes bearing my name that I never could have imagined when I was a cub reporter 30 years ago. Some of those books have been best-sellers, some have sold only a handful of copies; some are forgotten and others are described these days as "classics" -- interestingly, there is little correlation between the current status of those books and their original sales.

As I look back over my book writing career (as opposed to journalism or television) it becomes apparent to me that I write three types of books: reporting, history or business theory. In my bibliography, the last type is the rarest: strictly speaking, I've written only four, up until now all of them co-authored, on virtual corporations, sales force automation, and intellectual capital. Only the new one, which is about protean corporations, bears my name alone.

Writing (and no doubt reading) this kind of book is a very different experience from, say, my last book, which was a biography of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. Reported books are typically the product of thousands of hours on the ground, covering events, getting quotes on the fly, capturing the "first draft of history." Historical books are the product of a handful of key interviews with survivors, and a ton of research in libraries and on-line.

But a book of business theory, where you are describing a model of something – in this case the corporation of the future – for which there are few examples, either complete or fragmentary, the work is mostly thinking. You spend months, even years, puzzling out the long-term implications of discrete phenomena happening today. You try to do a few sanity checks – like lecturing on the topic in front of a knowledgeable audience, writing a few preliminary articles, talking to business executives you respect – but when you finally send your manuscript to the publisher there is no guarantee that there isn't some fatal flaw in your theory, or that the audience won't conclude that you are nuts.

Happily, that hasn't seemed to have happened … so far. One reason, I suspect, is that I've had a long time to think about this book. The legendary venture capitalist, Bill Davidow, and I wrote the precursor to this book, the best-selling The Virtual Corporation, 17 years ago. And I've had all of the intervening years to watch – as most of the world's great companies turned into virtual corporations and we all went to work for them – as the flaws in that model slowly surfaced.

In fact, I first began to formulate my ideas for the successor to virtual corporations – "protean" (or shape-shifter) organizations, as early as 2000. But in those days, I was running a million circulation magazine and starting this column, and I didn't have time for writing books. When I was ready, it was the era of the dot.com crash and 9/11 – and neither the marketplace nor the publishing world was interested in any radically new ideas about business organization and competition. All of us were just trying to get through.

But I kept revisiting the idea over the years, knowing that someday I would write this book because I was certain of two things:

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