The Epcot Principle

A highlight of my childhood was visits to Disney’s Magic Kingdom, the gigantic amusement park build in the middle of Florida swampland that makes children’s’ dreams come true and parents’ wallets rapidly lose weight. As I grew older my interests shifted from Mickey Mouse and his character friends to Epcot, supposedly Walt Disney’s vision of the community of tomorrow (Epcot stands for Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow) and a showcase of technology and science.

One of my favorite rides covered the evolution of communication and automation, starting with a brumous scene of cavemen and culminating in a vision of “someday in the twenty-first century.” The characters in the scene sat lazily in the living room of the future, a variety of computers and robots happily handling the tedium of modern life, and as the background voice explained “automation and computers can quickly do menial tasks, providing hours of additional leisure time to the modern family.”

Technology was imbued with an air of magic, each advance taking over some mundane aspect of our lives and translating into more leisure time.

That vision obviously has never been realized, and each moment of time saved by technology has translated into time for additional work, rather than leisure—the serene faces of relaxation at the end of the ride replaced with looks of frustration while banging on tiny Blackberry keys in response to the machine’s incessant chirping.

Epcot applied a misguided vision of technology as a magical savior, with direct and demonstrable changes due to its implementation. The arrival of the robot providing more leisure was a trite and unrealistic a vision as the arrival of the laptop computer allowing you to have all your employees working 24 hours a day, with nary a consequence.

Looking at more mature aspects of society or a business makes some of the promises made regarding a given technology quaint and laughable by comparison. When was the last time you heard your accountant promising that a new way of managing your chart of accounts would be a life changer, or that adopting a new method for handling debits and credits would provide “dramatic returns on investment?”

Accounting and Finance have surely changed the way a company operates and have provided massive competitive advantage, but it was in how the tools were applied within the company’s strategy that provided the dramatic results, rarely the tool itself. For whatever reason, many of us hold onto the Epcot principle, buying the latest and greatest gadget, computing device or software platform, hoping that its mere purchase and presence will bring success.

Consider all the CIOs who answer every problem with a technical “solution” or the industry laggard that pins all their hopes on buying the same enterprise software the segment leader runs rather than taking a long and hard look at how their company and its markets are structured. While it seems counterintuitive, the best strategy for fully leveraging technology is to marginalize the technology itself. Look at the challenges your company is facing and develop an overarching strategy, then talk about the tools and tactics to achieve that strategy.

The people who maintain the rides at Epcot realized the error of their ways several years ago, and have toned down the vision of the future that involved sitting on one’s duff while the machines toiled away. Be wary of the Epcot Principle rearing its head in your company. In the meantime, I wait still for the countless hours of leisure time I was promised as a child.

Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology. Prevoyance Group provides strategic IT consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at [email protected].