The Rise of Business Shape-Shifters

1. Businesses can't keep running the way they do now, not in an Internet-based global marketplace; and

2. Every new economic era is accompanied by, and ultimately led by, a new type of business organization.

The first point is now truer than ever – and, the economic crisis aside, most companies are now beginning to sense that they are racing towards a structural crisis, one in which their organizational models are dangerously out of synch with the marketplace, with needs of their own employees, and of society.

As for the second point, even a cursory glance at business history will convince you that every great economic bust and boom cycle in our country's history has produced a new kind of business: the English Model of the early 19th century, the American model of the Civil War era, the Factory Model, the Progressive/Scientific Model of Henry Ford, the Divisional Model of Alfred Sloan's General Motors, and on and on. Out of the ashes of an economic crisis, new and more competitive businesses emerge, evolved to best adapt to the nature of the new boom. We are in just such a crisis now – and as we come out of it in the months ahead, we will need a new kind of business to lead us into the next era of prosperity.

I believe that will be the Protean Corporation.

What is a "Protean" Corporation? Simply, it is an organization that answers the fundamental paradox of modern business in our fast-moving, technology-based world:

How do you build a company or other organization that can keep up with today's blistering rate of change, that can adapt itself to constantly changing market conditions, yet still not tear itself to pieces or lose its identity in the process?

This is the challenge faced by almost every company in the world today, as well as by non-profits, governments and other institutions. It used to be that you competed with the company down the street, or in another state. Nowadays, you must compete (for sales, attention, allegiance) not only with competitors on the other side of the planet, but new competitors that can appear out of nowhere due to some technological advance -- for customers with almost no product loyalty and ever-shorter attention spans . . .all in the midst of an unprecedented cacophony of competing interests.

The only way, it seems, to do this is to reorganize your company to be able to adapt to change so quickly, to transform itself so rapidly, that it becomes less a real enterprise and more a collection of people and tools that can be thrown at the latest challenge or opportunity. In a sense, that's what we've done with "virtual" companies, sending the employees home to work and giving them more and more responsibilities to shorten the decision cycle.

However even this isn't fast enough in our ever-accelerating world. But if companies continue to atomize themselves they run the risk of evaporating entirely. Already we are seeing a collapse of morale and loyalty among modern workers – and why not? When your office is a table at Starbucks, and when you're employer is little more than a home page, why should you be loyal to a company with "no there there"?

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