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EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES -- Tomorrowland

EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES -- Tomorrowland

Bran Ferren's title is executive vice president for creative technology and R&D at Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale, Calif., but his occupation appears to be full--time thinker, dreamer and philosopher. Ferren has won numerous awards for his work in theatre, film and photography and was nominated for an Academy Award for the visual effects he helped produce for the 1986 movie Little Shop of Horrors. CIO (US) talked to Ferren about the role of the Web--and the CIO--in the future of business.

CIO: I've heard you describe yourself as being primarily a storyteller. How do you think the Web will change the art of storytelling? Bran Ferren: The Web is a storytelling medium. Most people function in a storytelling mode. It's the way we communicate ideas, richly, as well as how we structure our thoughts.

CIO: "As well as how we structure our thoughts"--that's an interesting statement. Tell me more about that.

Ferren: Well, I don't know anyone who remembers things based upon a string of facts. You remember because you assemble things in a storytelling form. I would argue that genetically our brains are wired for storytelling. It's our method of organising information for presentation to others.

I have never known a great teacher, a great political leader or a great military leader who also wasn't a great storyteller. Education is a storytelling problem. Leadership is a storytelling problem. Ultimately, being a CIO is a storytelling problem. However, most CIOs don't understand that.

CIO: How is being a CIO a storytelling problem? Ferren: On multiple levels. Because you're a leader of an organisation and your job is to identify and articulate that vision of the organisation. I often find that technology information organisations don't have a vision. What they function in is trying to keep their head above water. You know, barbarians at the gate. They are up there on the list of most despised entities within most companies. I feel comfortable with this because always having been part of creative groups or research and development, I am also on the list.

Now the storytelling may be one person conversing with another via e--mail. It may be showing the stock price of the company. It may be showing the financial status of the company at any moment. A string of numbers in abstraction doesn't mean anything. But a presentation, for example, of the financial state of the company in a way that is compelling and immediately gets people's attention is good storytelling. I think if more CIOs understood that ultimately what they are doing is enabling the art of storytelling, they would be more effective at communicating the deeper ideas that generate the perception of value in their customers.

CIO: So our IT departments, or at least our databases, are kind of the memory artists of corporations? Ferren: Yes. There's the mechanical memory, but then there's also the deeper memory. The deeper memory of a corporation has to do with the sense of community, colleagues functioning together, history, accomplishments and so forth. All of that ultimately makes up the culture of a corporation.

Part of the issue is how to convey that to the outside world. Information technology is now being used to do that in the Web pages that many companies are now using, and they're doing it incredibly badly because they're not taking it seriously as a storytelling problem. Often the Web experience is frustrating, difficult, convoluted. I can't tell you the number of times I've gone to the Web page of a company and spent ages waiting for dumb graphics to download information. How many times have you seen, for instance, a company that's posted on the Web that doesn't bother to give you a phone number? I don't want to talk to the webmaster or webmistress. But I may want to talk to the president of the company or someone in sales or someone in marketing, and I want to do it immediately. Or you want to go somewhere, like to look at products, and the last thing that comes up on the page is the hyperlink for products. So meanwhile, you're looking at all this other junk and high--resolution photos and images and other s People will do pages that say "under construction." What is this "under construction" nonsense? If you want something that's preliminary, fine. Put up something preliminary. But when I'm on the Web, I want to know about the product you make. This doesn't seem like rocket science. They'll tell me about employment, and they'll tell me about their corporate structure and their history and their analytical report, then nothing about products. Even if you have to put up a typed page of products, and then a contact to call at the company, do it. This is common sense.

The problem is that in most companies, the Web is considered a strange and unnatural thing, and the process of designing it is disconnected. In fact, there's an age gap where many of the very senior people in companies, who are making decisions about these things, aren't online. So they're approving, looking at, reviewing things that they're never accessing themselves, nor are they part of the culture of how people use the Web.

CIO: What needs to happen?

Ferren: The key decision makers have to get in the game and be online. If you cannot understand the behaviours, likes and needs of your customers, you're being isolated from the critically important community you need to reach. So rather than it being the badge of honour that you don't have a computer on your desk, get one. Whether it's at home or at work, be online. We still have companies and IS departments that basically don't want people on the Web.

The whole future of a lot of companies and their marketing is going to shift to the Web--yet their employees aren't allowed to be on it because managers are worried about them playing games or shopping or downloading porn sites. At a certain point, you just have to get over this. I've heard arguments from CIOs that they're spending X dozen hours a week chasing down violations of Internet stuff. Give me a break. Substitute the words "newspaper," "U.S. mail," etc., for "Internet." Do you prevent your employees from using the mail? If it's their lunchtime and they read a newspaper, looking at a used car ad, that's OK.

Yet if they do it on the Web, it isn't OK.

This stuff is just silly. You get the arguments, "Well, there are people spending hundreds of hours a week downloading porn sites." My attitude is that if their supervisor didn't notice some deterioration in their performance because they're spending a hundred hours a week on a porn site, then there is a more fundamental management problem within the company.

What you want to do is engender the sense of responsibility among the employees and basically say, "Look, we're giving [Web access] to you as a tool. We want you to learn about it. We want you to understand it. We want you to become part of it, because ultimately, it's important to your perception and what your job is and will evolve into. At the same time, we'd appreciate it if you would act with the same responsibility with this as you do with all the other tools and freedoms you're given." That to me is a rational approach. At the same time, the arguments are, "We have to supply all that bandwidth." Yes, you do. And you have to supply an infrastructure that will support it and so forth, just as you do a mail system, just as you do a telephone system and just as you do heating, ventilating, air--conditioning and light.

CIO: If a company does all those things, what can it expect to get in return? Ferren: It can expect to be in the game. Without doing that, you're not in the game. Once you're in the game, then it's going to be based upon the skills and competency of your people, how they're organised and how the leadership of the company directs and redirects the vision of the company to embrace it. You can't even begin that process unless your people are wired and are participating in that community.

What is the impact of the Internet going to be? How and when and where and why is it going to affect everyone? That's a great dilemma to everybody. No one has answers to that. The point is you can't even formulate appropriate questions unless you're involved.

CIO: How do you see companies getting the most from the Web? Ferren: I personally use the Web as an intelligence amplifier. I have my search engine of choice on my desktop continuously. Someone will call me and ask me a question. While they're asking me, I can type into the computer, do a query, get back dozens or hundreds of responses. While I'm literally in the middle of a conversation, I can be more valuable to them just because I have this available to me. This is a pretty fundamental thing. It is directly valuable and helps me in doing my job. I find it hard to believe that there are many jobs to which this would not apply.

Many companies--most companies--are behind the power curve in terms of how they deal with this stuff. They've got to do something about it. Ultimately, they can be proactive and initiate the change themselves. The CIO takes the initiative, takes the flak, gets the money and goes and does it. Or it's just a more slow, painful, protracted process. But it is inevitable.

It's also inevitable that every corporation in the United States should be adopting an Internet--like model for how it structures its IS systems. It's not even subject to discussion.

CIO: How is the Internet changing the inside of companies? How are intranets changing thought processes within companies? Ferren: In most companies, it isn't even happening, and that's the sad part.

People sometimes treat the whole notion of an intranet and so forth as if it's some type of miraculous thing. An intranet is simply a way of getting the advantages of Web conductivity and friendly interface extended into what you're doing within a company.

When it comes to the internal workings and processes of a company, often the effect isn't radical, it just makes things better. Part of the challenge is I don't think most IS departments are starting to think about what their brand is. I think they're missing a huge opportunity.

CIO: How can an IS department think about what its brand is? Ferren: For the same reason any company can think about its brand. It's what you present to your customers. In the IS world, you have customers: the employees of the company who are connected. Those customers have a perception of you, what you do, what your department does and so forth. Traditionally, IS has been a largely invisible process. You see products moving back and forth, but the infrastructure ought to be invisible. Increasingly it isn't invisible because it does it badly. E--mail, for example, is generally a corporate disaster.

CIO: Corporate IS departments generally don't have a lot of competition.

Ferren: Oh, absolutely. But it's time people realised that there is an opportunity now: They have the tools to actually improve the quality of life of the employees in the company significantly. Those who embrace that concept and run with it, rather than take the barbarians--at--the--gate philosophy, could reap extraordinary rewards for themselves and their companies. If you can make everybody's life just 1 percent more efficient through the IS system--1 percent across a whole company has real impact.

So often people focus in the opposite direction, pick a specific department or specific issue that either is in trouble and make it a little less in trouble, or take a bunch of stars and make them bigger stars. Well, the effect on the area under the curve is often quite minimal. At the same time, a company getting a 1 percent to 5 percent enhancement in the overall productivity of the company seems like a pretty attainable goal.

CIO: Disney is said to have a model privacy policy. Was that hard to come up with? Ferren: Every company should do that--it's not extraordinary. If you're going to be in a situation where you are taking advantage, in the positive sense, of the information that is available to you through the Internet, for example, either by people contacting you and so forth, you should tell people what you're planning to do with it and/or give them options. Ultimately, much of it just has to do with ethics and responsibility. Do you take people's confidentiality seriously? How do you use it? What do you do with it relative to marketing? Using this information to make your site better, to understand what people are using, what they're not and where they seem to get confused is very important in the whole design.

Keep in mind that design is an iterative process. You have to keep redesigning these things dynamically to make them better and better, unlike the print medium, where you design it once, it goes out, and you have to wait a long period of time. So in a situation like a typical Web site, to be able to get that feedback is invaluable. Knowing who your customers are is invaluable. But what do you do with that information? Do you sell it to others? Do you give it to others? Stating those policies is important so the consumer understands what is being done with it.

CIO: One more thing. What's your opinion of using channels to separate quality information on the Web? Ferren: I think that what will ultimately distinguish quality is brand. There are all sorts of discussions now about portals, channels, brand of identity and all of that. That's been going on for several years. We don't have a stable model yet. We're going to go through a bunch of changes.

On one level people say, "I don't want someone taking control of my desktop." At the same time, you have other people saying, "I want to take control of your desktop." Obviously, if you could take control of people's desktops in such a way that they're happy with it, and you provide them with a way to get what they need, that's great. Except historically most people want choices. So if you are providing them with one type of news and they want another type of news, they want the ability to configure that. I think that in the near term, you may see branded, "channelled" approaches that are not selectable as things people try, but traditionally the marketplace determines things.

For instance, if I want ABCNews.com rather than CNN or something else, anyone who prevents me from getting that will in the long run be disengaged. You could make a play and say, "Leverage this." Well, if you have a popular site and you have someone's branded identity there, clearly you're giving an advantage and there are synergistic opportunities there.

Ultimately, the marketplace will determine what works and what doesn't. The notion of channels as a method to get to things--look, there are a whole bunch of hierarchical, philosophical, storytelling ways to organise the way you present information and options to people. This will be in a state of continuous evolution for many years as we try things, see how people like them and react to them, and better things come along.

For the same reason, we watch evolution in how human beings interface with computers. Twenty years ago, you had to type bizarre hieroglyphics and be able to interpret what came back from the computer. Then we went to the next level of operating systems, which were more user friendly, but you still needed a funny series of commands, to overlapping window, icon--driven interfaces, to dynamic interfaces, to streaming interfaces, etc. It's in a state of continuous evolution. We have not approached Nirvana.

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