Virtual, as in virtual reality or virtual enterprise, means "as if" or "seems to be." Virtual reality, for example, means creating experiences that "seem to be" very real. Likewise, a virtual enterprise acts "as if" it is a conventional company, with all of a conventional company's functionality and capability but without the entrenched bureaucracy, fixed procedures, overhead, and so on. Unencumbered, the virtual enterprise gains agility, responsiveness, and efficiency. There is virtue in being virtual.
When individuals come together to act as if they are part of a company, or if small companies come together to act as if they are part of a large corporation, a virtual enterprise springs into being. The beauty is, these individuals or smaller companies can recombine in whatever arrangement will get the next job done. In the past, it took factory walls and time clocks and fixed job functions to get people and their tools to come together for productive work.
However, electronic communication and high-speed computer processing overcome many of the limitations once imposed by space and time. The Internet, that emerging global computer network that provides universal integration, is the current culmination of this enabling technology. No development has so massively, so pervasively, or so suddenly transcended former realities. Business will never be the same.
Transitory associations of free-lancers or job shops working collaboratively on a common project is all the structure a virtual enterprise needs. The virtual enterprise will converge in cyberspace.
It behooves us then to become diligent students of "as-if-ness," for it is the new order of the age. It rewrites all of the rules.
For example, we have to start looking at every CNC machine tool in operation today as if it was a workstation in an FMS, a single, world-wide flexible machining system, with the Internet serving as a universal work scheduler, job router, NC tool path generator, direct numerical control connection, and statistical process control data collector. Want to make a product? Log on and rent a portion of this global FMS. Everything will happen on a timesharing basis.
We're not quite there yet, but all that remains to be worked out are the details. It's close enough that we should think and act as if it's already here.