The Protean Corporation: “A new business model for a new world”
Once again, Charles Darwin’s explanation of the importance of adaptation during a process of natural selection is directly relevant to a book written more than 150 years after The Origin of the Species, in this instance to Michael Malone’s The Future Arrived Yesterday. He focuses on what he describes as the “Protean Corporation, ” explaining how and why it is “a new business model for a new world.” What are its dominant characteristics? Here is a composite of brief excerpts: It “will be a very dynamic place. Companies will complete the move from hierarchies and toward a model of highly interconnected craft guilds. With a workforce scattered around the planet, linked virtually, the last obstacles to inclusiveness will also fall, meaning virtual job shops, temporary help hired off the Web, more permanent part-time workers, and the hiring (in unusual new relationships) of the retired, the young, and the unlikely (illiterates, for example)…Protean Corporations will appear to be risk-takers with constant shifts and turns [when adapting to changing conditions], but they will, in fact, be risk-aversive, changing their form and direction to minimize risk. Being extremely stable at heart, Protean Corporations will also likely be more politically active (in support of their attitudes and values), an easier target for unions (if a new form of organized labor arises to meet their unique needs), and extremely innovative with regard to employee benefits, pay structures, services, and motivational tools.”
When will this business model become a reality? It already has. Exemplary companies include Google, Wikipedia, Pajamas Media, Huffington Post, Approtech, and Twitter as well as several well-established corporations (e.g. HP, Intel, and IBM) that have completed or are in the process of completing major change initiatives. “The U.S. Army, after its experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, is hurriedly restructuring itself to be able to change its shape to meet any threat in the world with an appropriate combat force that adapts on the ground to an ever-shifting battlefield f reality.” The new currency of organizational effectiveness consists of speed, resilience, flexibility, and adaptability.
I especially appreciate Malone’s skillful use of various reader-friendly devices, such as the checklists that he inserts throughout his lively narrative. For example, he identifies and then briefly discusses his book’s six premises (Pages 9-13). “If you do not agree with them, you should be highly skeptical of all that follows.” He also highlights key points in bold face or poses a transition question. For example, “The role of the Core [i.e. a body of long-time, permanent employees who best understand the company] in a Protean Corporation is to establish standards of behavior in the company, preserve the company history, and nurture and grow the company’s culture. Its primary operating task is to advise and consent on all cultural decisions made by the company chief executive and management. Its secondary task is to maintain and upgrade the company statement of purpose, corporate objectives, and all other documents, regulations, and standards reflecting the company’s culture and philosophy. The Core reports directly to the Board of Directors and indirectly to the CEO.” (Page 122) Now here’s a question: “What happens when the plans of a CEO collide with the corporate culture being maintained by the Core employees? Who wins?” (Page 153). Note how effectively the statement summarizes key points and how the question then sets up Malone’s response.
He accepts the inevitability of the new future he has described, as well as its challenges, and offers a strategy “for businesses and other institutions to meet that future and succeed.” He makes a compelling case for the Protean Corporation, “fort a new organizational model that is not so radical in its design or that requires such a complete restructuring of current models that no company or other institution could justify risking the attempt.” Malone may be a visionary thinker but he is also a pragmatist whose opinions and insights are guided and informed by empirical evidence that can be verified. With all due respect to the importance to an organization of its ability to move quickly, adapt to rapidly changing marketplaces, and, perhaps most important, attract the talents of an increasingly entrepreneurial workforce, Malone concludes his brilliant book with an eminently sensible reminder: “But even as you build your Core and fill it with Core Employees, it is absolutely vital to circumscribe their powers. They are, in the end, people of the past, not the future, they represent stasis, not change. It is the rest of us who represent the future, who embody that change. And by giving those few others the task of preserving what is defining and enduring, they in turn free the rest of us to pursue out ever-changing, ever-shifting dreams. The Protean Society belongs to protean imaginations.”
Sooner than “the rest of us” may realize, the future that arrived yesterday will become a distant past and those who remain must then adapt to a new future that has only recently arrived, posing new and more daunting challenges than we can possibly imagine.