Technology and Storytelling Are Catalysts That Power Disney Magic
Storytelling and technology are at the heart of Disney’s success, but simply adopting these goals is not enough. The secret is to insert them deeply into the corporate DNA, a process that converts them into catalysts for disruption and accelerators for retail magic.
Michael White, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Disney, exudes unabashed enthusiasm for storytelling and technology, linking two goals in a way I rarely hear about in my travels around the retail industry. I heard White speak at the recent Shop.Org event during the whirlwind fall conference season and his clarity on the topic was too good to not capture here.
White’s title includes the acronym DCPI, which stand for Disney Consumer Products and Interactive Media. His presentation was unique, as I said, because it did not focus on customer-centricity, omnichannel, unified commerce or any of the buzzwords one usually hears at retail events.
In fact, White’s presentation was filled with divergent, outlier insights, something retailing could use more of. Here a few key examples from the session:
- “Retail is critical to Disney’s success, but today every aspect of retail is being disrupted. Yes, it is a challenge but it is also an opportunity. The question we ask ourselves is, 'How can we harness the disruptive forces changing retail and become disruptors ourselves?'”
- “At Disney, everything we do is in service of storytelling and, just as importantly, technology, which is the magic that powers Disney. In fact, technology has always been part of the DNA of Disney. What we like is the ability to see guests smile by using the technology we build. This is a blissful experience.”
- “The most transformative technologies we are looking at are artificial intelligence (AI) and M2M (machine to machine learning). These aren’t just buzzwords. They have the power to change everything in retail both for consumer-facing services and back-of-house processes. At Disney we are planning for the day when AI and M2M will transform all of our offerings.”
White also spoke about such new initiatives as making the Shop Disney website an immersive experience, creating pilot stores that use storytelling and technology to make products heroes in the retail space, and teaching computers to recognize Disney characters.
He also outlined a three-part blueprint for sustaining Disney magic and success:
1. Training – Don’t hire for specific skill sets, hire generalists and then train them to do new things as things change. Bring in speakers for tech talks. Stage hack days. Promote mentorship and women in tech. Hold tech days, but don’t chase every technology out there. Instead, focus on things that make a difference, things like AI.
2. Diversity – Women and minorities are underrepresented in most businesses today. Make an effort to advance women and minorities in the company and in the community. Help break down barriers to mid-career shifts. Create life-transformation programs.
3. Culture of innovation – Innovation is the key to disruption. "We run focused challenges to address specific needs and we make sure we extend the challenges to the high-level executive team," says White. "We have a Flex Force, which is a tiger team of engineers who help projects get off the ground or across the finish line. We have machine-learning pods within our lines of business and we make sure we bring in non-technical executives to examine bottlenecks and think about resolutions."
The power of storytelling and technology are passions I closely identify with, but they rarely come up in serious business discussions, partly because the pace of change is so great in retail that one bright idea seems as good as the next as long as the ideas keep coming.
Instead of stringing together a series of new ideas maybe what's needed is a strategy that inserts the power of idea creation into the corporate DNA and then multiplies its disruptive power by getting the organization to fully commit to the art of storytelling and the science of technology to achieve success.