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Mission Implausible

“And on Thursday at 2:00 p.m., sir, you have your annual checkup in the CVRC.”“What’s that new place for, Mary? …

“And on Thursday at 2:00 p.m., sir, you have your annual checkup in the CVRC.”

“What’s that new place for, Mary? Presumably something fairly pointless, since as far as I can see, all the young hotshots in this company seem to spend most of their working week there.”

“The CVRC, sir? That’s the corporate virtual reality clinic that we had installed next to the medical center and the executive gym last year. The chairman likes to know that every director is checked out regularly for a range of enterprise-planning scenarios.”

“Well, last time John went there, he says they had him privatizing the army. This year, the briefing note says they want me to launch a chain of vegetarian steakhouses.”

“I’m sure you’ll enjoy it, sir. And I’m told they have some new computers that make the experience truly vivid . . .”

“Well, Mr. Fosterlager, welcome to the CVRC, and let me take you to one of our executive interaction booths. Coffee? Or would you prefer to drink it virtually?”

“Hold on a minute, Dr. Treadmill. What exactly is all this virtual reality stuff?”

“Well, sir, as a senior vice president of Bombastic Enterprises, you know that the chairman and CEO, Randolph Bombastic III, likes to leave no stone unturned in his quest for excellence in the senior management echelons. The corporate virtual reality center is hooked up to computers that interact with you via 3-D screens on all four walls, complete with sound, smell, taste, and texture. You’re encased in a fully transduced communicating suit that relays your every expression to the computers.”

“So what’s all this about the vegetarian steakhouses?”

“Well, sir, that one’s been shelved in favor of a much more exciting exercise. We want you to put together a virtual strategy for Bombastic Enterprises! We’d like you to interact with the CVRC, to run through a whole host of scenarios, and to see if you can’t devise a winning game plan to boost our market share and to help us kill off our archrival, Hubris Incorporated.”

“Well, you’d better strap me in then.”

“Is that comfortable, sir?”

“I can feel the power of this thing now! With a flick of my wrist I’ve just dropped the price of oil by $15 a barrel. With each blink of my eye, the Pentagon boosts defense spending by $80 billion a year, and look over there-I inadvertently cleared my throat, and it’s started the Japanese buying our cars. This is the way business ought to be! But what I need is some way to figure out what combination of market actions will give me the winning formula I need. Pricing, quality, employee motivation, cost controls .. There ought to be some way to put all these together into the right pattern. But how?”

“Mr. Fosterlager, sir, this is Dr. Treadmill, your instructor here. Can you hear me?”

“Sure, Treadmill. You’re sounding fine. You look just like the head of the Bundesbank, but I know it’s you really.”

“Well, sir, we’ve implemented a new feature today that lets you create whole new technologies within the CVRCsomething that none of us can even think of yet! Just press that button marked `technofantasy’ and follow the instructions.”

“Okay, Treadmill, I’ve pressed it. Well, what’s this? Some kind of genie rubbing a lamp. I can have how many wishes? Three? Well, let’s see .. .

“For my first wish, I’d like to get out of here in five minutes.

“For my second wish, I never want to have to return.

“And for my third and final wish, I want to find a new way of doing strategic thinking. Something with an intuitive man-machine interface. Permanent power-on with no battery expiration. Infinite screen resolution with any number of colors. Free-format text and graphics, with a global database available in similar format. Ability to take any language and to cope with abstract plans, diagrams, and conceptual jottings. Some kind of add-on unit that turns the surface transparent, so you can shine a big light through it and blow it up on a huge screen in a meeting room. A way to make copies very quickly and inexpensively. Something I can use on my lap in a plane or a train, or at home when I’m sitting in my favorite armchair. No training required, and capable of interacting with multiple users simultaneously. Low-cost and obtainable anywhere. Simple . . .”

“Hold it right there, Mr. Fosterlager. Something’s coming through on the CVRC master screen. I can’t quite make it out, sir, but it’s got a kind of weird shape to it. No thickness at all as far as I can see, and an amazing look and feel-dazzling, bright white. The computer’s got a name for it already, sir! It says it’s a portable active patented exploratory register! That’s an amazing invention you’ve just virtually realized, sir, but I have a feeling the guys in marketing are going to find that name just fractionally lacking in mass market appeal. Maybe we can shorten it a little. How about Port-Aper? Or Pap-Explor? Or . . . hold on a minute, there’s some kind of engaging acronym possibility here, sir. P-A-P-E-R! What do you think about PAPER as the name for this new tool for strategic thinking that you’ve just virtually conceptualized, sir?”

“Alas, Treadmill, I love it, but I don’t believe it’ll ever catch on. Did you ever read Descartes? Cogito ergo sum-I think, therefore I am? Poor sad man-ahead of his time, but lamentably behind our own. These days I’m rather afraid it’s cogito ergo eram-I think, therefore I’m a has-been. And now, how about that first wish?”

Robert Bittlestone is founder and chief executive of Metapraxis, a London and New York-based consulting group specializing in executive information and strategic control.

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