Culture

Anne We've known each other for a decade through several jobs and several companies. Practicing martial arts has seemed like an important tool for you to maintain focus and balance at work. Are there specific lessons from that kind of training that you're using to whip America Online into shape?

Jon In terms of martial arts, the biggest carryover to this job is the idea of taking responsibility for what happens. If you continue in martial arts over a period of time, what you learn is not to fight, or even to defend yourself per se, but to be able to influence the direction of situations and to steer them toward positive outcomes.

Anne That sounds very Jedi warrior - like.

Jon The prerequisite is to be able to perceive what is necessary in any given situation. Then you need to have the ability to respond to the situational demands as they present themselves. Responding requires flexibility -- fitting your response to the situation, not the other way around. An interesting corollary is that you can always see it coming. If you maintain that mind-set, then you're taking responsibility.

Anne So what do you see coming in 2003 and 2004 that will help you steer AOL toward a positive outcome?

Jon AOL is a strong, growing business, and if we can update the secret sauce of communications and convenience for the next wave of interactivity, it will be even stronger. Interrelating community, communications, content, and commerce will be the key. That also entails investing in the product itself. We need to look at AOL across all modes of access from the point of view of both the consumer and our technical infrastructure. Succeeding at that requires a shift in traditional internal-operating styles and values. Heretofore, the narrowband business defined AOL. The organization reflected that skew. While that business will continue to lead, we're moving toward an internal understanding of how all of the pieces fit together to comprise the new AOL.

Anne You've worked for some of the great, visionary culture-industry leaders: Barry Diller at USA Interactive, David Stern at the NBA, and Geraldine Laybourne at Nickelodeon. What did you learn from them?

Jon One thing that I learned from Barry is, if you sense that something needs to be done, do it now. David is a master at expressing how each part of an organization relates to all of the others, even if some areas seem unrelated at first. Clearly explaining how the various parts of our organization should interrelate is going to be key in our ability to execute. Gerry is terrific at galvanizing an organization around the big idea -- something that AOL just needs to articulate.

Anne What is the big idea that you're going to implant at AOL?

Jon We're going back to a focus on delivering clear value to our members. That's simple to say, but since we've grown so large, AOL represents a snapshot of America itself. We need to remain true to our core propositions -- ease of use, community, and so on -- but we also need to begin shifting toward a diversified product line that segments the member base and super-serves the needs of each group. Launching 8.0 and giving members a choice of Welcome Screens and the MatchChat option were our first steps in that regard. MatchChat is the tool that allows AOL to connect you with other members who share your interests -- all in real time, without having to search through tens of thousands of chats. For AOL, which has millions of simultaneous users, that's a unique and real opportunity. Capitalizing on that is a great use of our scale and network infrastructure. But we need to go much, much further.

Anne Let's go back to the rationale for the merger of AOL and Time Warner. Is content from Time Warner ever going to be a driving part of the AOL user's experience? I have to say, I'm skeptical.

Jon The rationale is right. The execution in terms of leveraging across business units has not lived up to the promise, except perhaps in terms of cross promotion. As digitization increasingly affects all media businesses -- and the directional arrow in this regard is unequivocal -- the other AOL Time Warner businesses become increasingly relevant to AOL and vice versa. AOL has the opportunity to interrelate with almost all of the other divisions in a meaningful way. In that sense, AOL has a unique role in the company. When we think about the next-generation tech platform, for example, it's with one eye on the needs of the rest of the company to deliver digital content and services -- such as music.

Anne If you can convince your entertainment siblings -- i.e., Warner Music and Warner Bros. -- to finally, truly embrace the Internet, then you might be a Jedi Master.

Anne Kreamer (akreamer@fastcompany.com) is a media entrepreneur and consultant in New York. Jon Miller, chairman and CEO of AOL, is Anne's column guest this month.

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