A couple years ago, the owner of a software company and dear client of mine proudly emailed me a picture of what he referred to as his “command and control center.” It was an impressive array of servers, dual monitors, printers and laptops all congregated on a large table in his dining room with Ethernet cables and a multiport router. Two weeks later I emailed him a photo of me on the beach sitting in a lounge chair, my laptop opened up in my lap and my cell phone sitting beside a cold beverage. “This is my command and control center,” I wrote.

When you work in the cloud, your office or command and control center is simply where you are at the time. Geographical location and distance are irrelevant. The cloud is where entrepreneurism, mobility and specialization combine to form an emerging new employment paradigm. Just as the cloud is liberating organizations from the confines of the physical data center, it is slowly unshackling knowledge workers from the cubicle forever. (For more on working with the cloud, see Project Management, Cloud Computing Style.)

A Job as a Granular Unit of Work

In 2009, renowned MIT Management Professor, Thomas Malone, authored a book called “The Future of Work,” in which he described the labor market of the coming decade:

“Imagine organizations where bosses give employees huge freedom to decide what to do and when to do it. Imagine electing your own bosses and voting directly on important company decisions. Imagine organizations where most workers aren’t employees at all, but electronically connected freelancers living wherever they want to. And imagine that all this freedom in business lets people get more of whatever they really want in life – money, interesting work, helping other people or time with their families.”

This new future goes by more than one name. Some call it fractional employment, others call it hyperspecialization. Whichever term you prefer, the prevailing concept is that the unit of work is no longer a whole job. A unit of work today can be a project in which one person or a team of highly specialized workers operate together to see a project to its fruition. In this new fractional paradigm, employees will not work for a single employer, but will work for multiple employers, juggling a variety of projects and tasks, offering their skills on an as-needed basis. A job done by one generalist is now being dispersed across whole networks of very narrow experts, a process which has usually resulted in improvements regarding quality, speed and cost.

The History of Fractionalizing the Work Process

Of course, there is nothing new about this concept. Business has always increased productivity by breaking work down into smaller units, the classic example being Henry Ford’s implementation of the first assembly line. By breaking down the assembly process into hundreds of small tasks, he was able to make a car that the masses could afford. This constant division of work has traditionally benefited society as a whole, resulting in periods of lifestyle and prosperity on a scale unimaginable two hundred years ago.

So how did we get to this idea of fractionalizing jobs through the cloud? Just like the computer virtualization paradigm, the initial appeal of utilizing the cloud to outsource work was simply cost savings. The fiber optic cable that was placed under the oceans gave way to the idea of outsourcing call centers to India to the point that Bangalore, India has the highest concentration of call centers in the world. And then, just like computer virtualization, organizations soon recognized that the value of cloud outsourcing went far beyond mere cost savings.

Technology and Work Evolve Together

“Technology shapes styles of work,” says Ed Lazowska, who holds a chair in computer science and engineering at the University of Washington. “One critical advantage of the cloud is that sharing becomes dramatically easier.” It’s easier because it makes global communication so cheap that organizations can communicate with anyone in the developed world at virtually no cost. This allows them the ability to locate new talent that can not only contribute specialized tasks and knowledge, but innovation, new ideas and perspectives as well. In the constant race to value that organizations find themselves in today, businesses must constantly pursue new means of creation and innovation. They must achieve levels of unprecedented agility in order to respond to ever-diminishing product life cycles. With product margins continually growing smaller, businesses must turn to flexible, adaptable work forces that can be created and terminated at breakneck speed just like virtualized computers.

The '80s brought us just-in-time manufacturing, which led to just-in-time product delivery for chains such as Wal-Mart. It was only a matter of time until just-in-time employment naturally came to fruition as well. It is cloud technology which has provided business the tools to create this new delivery system of work. (For more on how business can benefit from using cloud services, see A Beginner's Guide to the Cloud: What It Means for Small Business.)

The Empowerment of Working in the Cloud

So what type of value do cloud workers receive in this seemingly frightening model of temporary virtual teaming in a highly competitive global environment? Well how about having more control over their careers and the types of projects they choose to become involved with? Imagine a work life in which every day is truly a new day, bringing with it new tasks, new opportunities and new relationships? Both workers and companies will also benefit from the elimination of the commute which wastes time, energy and brainpower. It is an environment that will provide unlimited opportunity for specialists that are good at what they do and know how to market themselves. Traditionally, one was limited to the geographical area as their market for their services. Today, the world is their market. This also means that mediocrity will have nowhere to hide as markets which lacked superior talent in the past will no longer have be restricted to the local talent pool.

So how does one take part in this movement? Well, for starters, there are sites such as upwork.com, peopleperhour.com and 99designs.com, which are all sites that match up employers and specialists. In the end though, it’s about marketing yourself through resources such as linkedin.com and other network-building resources. The catch phrase, "think global, act local" is as true as ever.

The Tools of the Fractional Cloud Worker

Some employers may require a confidentially agreement. Some may provide or even require an email account with their organization for intercompany communication. Virtual teams can share access to resources through cloud services such as Dropbox or OneDrive for Business, allowing file editing. Team members can communicate with each other using services such as Skype or Lync and hold weekly meetings utilizing cloud conference services such as Join.me.

Just like my earlier reference to open up this article, life can be a beach working in the cloud. Early adapters and entrepreneurs are embracing this new paradigm of agility and empowerment. The cloud has brought with it an era in which an app such as Uber can dramatically change the business landscape of an industry. Think of yourself as an app and get distributed to as many phones (employers) as possible. That, today, is the recipe for success.