The waiting-room seats at LaGuardia Airport are filling by the minute with businesspeople heading home after a day of meetings in New York. I’ve been watching for an hour, having arrived early for a flight to Australia. One of the reasons I’m early is that my kids were so enamored with playing a Backyardigans video game that the usual 30-minute goodbye shrunk to just a few minutes.
As I wait here, thinking about that video game and about some amazing companies I’ve studied this week and leaders I’ve interviewed, it suddenly emerges so clearly: business is becoming a video game.
I’ve been intrigued with the idea for years now. By buying the right call and put options, a derivatives trader can simulate the payoff of owning a diamond mine within a few minutes, then dismantle this virtual business just as fast when the tide turns. Why can’t we do the same with products that are not traded on commodity markets, like dolls or sneakers or those giant cellophane suitcase wrappers they hawk in front of airport check-in counters?
Business is becoming a video game faster than you might imagine. Consider two companies making it happen: Autodesk and Aquire.
Autodesk  is a once super-specialized software company that offers AutoCAD, a high-end tool used by engineers and architects to describe 3D environments digitally. Last week in San Francisco I got a chance to visit Autodesk’s offices and what I glimpsed there was awe-worthy.
I first used AutoCAD as a mechanical engineering student 20 years ago. It was clunky and complicated. But AutoCAD has changed. A version of the software has now become the number one film animation program – every movie nominated for an Oscar in film animation in the past 10 years has used the software. Designers are using it to convert impossible visions for electric guitars, watches, and even stained glass for churches into reality.
The company’s museum includes several 3D printers that cut and fuse layers of some kind of plastic material to exactly produce the 3D object you designed.
Autodesk is making it easier for the non-programmers among us to access its software by launching a small app--free or cheap--for the iPhone and iPad that allows anyone to immediately begin designing things with their fingertips.
If AutoCAD keeps along this path, what we can imagine is anyone coming up with a 3D vision for a product, hitting “print,” and selling it.
Aquire  was founded in 1994 by Lois Melbourne and her husband to help companies build organizational charts. If you’ve been to business school, you probably think the challenge of putting down boxes with names and connecting them via reporting lines seems mundane, but few companies--even well-run companies--do it. And if they do, their org charts are rarely updated when people move or are fired or hired. So Aquire has a software program called OrgPublisher  that allows companies to continually update their org charts as things change.
Sounds simple enough, but consider the strategic power of Aquire’s core product. Aquire could use it to do with HR managers what Autodesk has used AutoCAD to achieve with designers and engineers.
Soon after companies started using OrgPublisher, Aquire discovered they had related needs. They wanted to collaborate, allowing each manager to update their own team’s chart and have these charts rolled up into a master corporate chart. So Aquire offered its solution in the cloud.
By linking to a company’s budgeting, performance management, and other systems, Aquire’s offering can become a visually attractive tool for managing an organization. A friend of mine is in charge of a multi-billion-dollar region of a consumer products business and needs to cut 15% of his headcount. If he was using Aquire’s software, he could click into his charts and see an up-to-date profile for each group or employee including things like salary, average performance reviews, years on the job, and training.
Taking things further, Aquire’s program can now be integrated with SAP or Oracle. It can allow you to quickly test your succession plan (does this manager have enough capable people lined up to take over should she move?) or drill down into your turnover.
“A company may have a 5% overall turnover, but when you drill down [into the org charts] you find one manager has a 0.5% turnover and another 20%,” Melbourne illustrates.
I could go on about the exciting possibilities that Autodesk, Aquire, and thousands of other large and small companies are doing to help turn the hands-on game of business into a fast-based, virtual video game. Think Skype and Alibaba and Vistaprint.
I would not be about to board a 20-hour flight and all these tired businesspeople now crowded around me here in the airport would already be at home, for example. But until someone writes a fantasy book about this not-too-distant future (I want to write that book myself, by the way) let’s just dream ourselves.
What would it look like if YOUR business were a video game? How can you start moving there faster than your competition?
[Image: Flickr user Brandon Motz ]