When Andersen Consulting first looked to repackage its chemicals practice presentations two and a half years ago, it envisaged a service akin to that offered by a travel agent: where clients put forward their requirements, the agent understands those needs and comes up with the necessary information.
But what the practice got, through a collaboration with Westworld Interactive, was something far more dynamic and exciting: a futuristic virtual management application based on multimedia techniques, with 3D graphics reminiscent of those more often used in high-quality computer games.
“We wanted a flexible and dynamic environment to showcase our thought capital to our clients,” says Markus Kaupp, manager of the Frankfurt-based European chemicals practice. “We are selling intangibles – ideas and concepts.
We had two objects: making our vision of the industry and the future as tangible to our clients as possible; and enabling us to understand what our clients are thinking.”
The Powerpoint presentations the practice usually used were very much a one-way street. “Where is the dynamic in such presentations?” he says.
“The key is still the person and the message itself but there are new ways and techniques to deliver those messages. Multimedia is a very dynamic, flexible environment.”
Initially the project was to be an internal one but, according to Kaupp, Andersen lacked one specific skill: creative direction. “Of course, we have incredibly creative people,” he says, “but thinking how to represent knowledge and messages, to make this exciting using new technologies and multimedia capabilities, that creativity is a skill we simply don’t have.” A selection process, based on ability to deliver and professionalism, was initiated and Westworld Interactive become Andersen’s “sparring partner”.
At first, Westworld’s brief was to design the front-end of the application, the visual metaphor, but later it was extended to include implementation.
Says Kaupp: “Westworld had to come up with the script: ideas on what the metaphor could look like and how to bring over the messages on future scenarios.”
Later, he adds, the firm was asked to deliver and implement in terms of creating the tools, working collaboratively with Andersen’s Nice technology park. “The initial idea was to have it on the Internet – and we are still moving towards this – but we were ahead of our time and the tools were not in place,” he adds. “It came down to timescales: the faster move was to opt for Westworld’s capability and experience.”
The prototype, featuring a futuristic landscape dominated by a chemicals tower surrounded by silos or knowledge sites, was ready three months later.
But the process was not without its difficulties. The main problem, says Kaupp, was the correlation of content and representation. While Westworld worked on the design, Andersen’s chemical practice in Frankfurt was developing the content in parallel. “Westworld was struggling on that,” says Kaupp. “How are you to develop a metaphor if you don’t know what you are talking about in terms of the content?”
Another point, he says, is that developing ideas is an iterative process.
“We didn’t feel able to come up with precise expectations – but Westworld was quite flexible about that.”
The problems were solved simply by talking, he says. “We shared what we were working on. The content was not finished but the idea and vision was enough.” Andersen had to overcome its natural reluctance to give out information. “There were concerns about confidentiality – about what to give out and what to talk about – but it is then a question of trust.”
The fact that work was being carried out in different locations – London, Nice and Frankfurt – was not a key problem, says Kaupp. “It is the efficiency of communications which matter,” he adds.
Customer reaction to the application so far has been mixed. “The tool and the effect of the metaphor (which takes them on a pre-set journey based on their interests and information needs) excites clients at first but then they want to focus on the content,” says Kaupp.
Cultural background is an important factor in how it is received, as is management level. “Some people see it as Disneyworld,” he says. “American managers, for example, like it but German managers are not so sure – to them it seems like a toy. Multimedia still has a touch of ‘You’re not serious – are you talking business? This is fantasy.'”
Kaupp has witnessed the whole spectrum of responses: “Some clients think the application is great while others think we are trying to camouflage a lack of content and probe us on our messages and ability to conduct workshops,” he says. “We have to think carefully about what we show to whom. If I had a workshop in Switzerland, Austria or Germany, for example, I definitely would not show FutureChem.”
Instead, he would use a second version developed “without the fancy stuff”.
“It uses the flexibility of the tool to jump from one topic to another, using the FutureChem structure to bring out the content and allow clients to follow the dynamic of the discussion easily,” he says.
Generally, though, Andersen’s intent in any presentation governs what is used. “We have a number of criteria,” says Kaupp, “including cultural considerations, the management level, the size of the audience and their expectation setting. For example, if a presentation is made to a broader audience to attract customers, it is accepted and appreciated that, even in Germany, you have the fancy stuff.”
He adds: “We wanted this flexibility – not just a single option but to be able to select what we think is appropriate and tailor it to clients’ needs.”
This is a key advantage, he says. “We have a whole spectrum of options, from one-to-one communication with a client using a notebook to video conferencing and multiple screens in our own facilities. We can bring in experts, or share applications or run the application remotely.” And the use of multimedia has improved understanding with clients.
Essentially, says Kaupp, Andersen can transport its knowledge. “We have got rid of the constraints of time and place and can present client workshops wherever we want on the planet.”
This global aspect is very important, he says, in the context of the overall Andersen Consulting reorganisation.
“The idea is to have this kind of capability on a global basis across industry. In this respect FutureChem was a pilot. All the lessons we have learnt here will be brought in on a global level.” He says “FutureTronics” and “FutureMotive” are possibilities. And he doesn’t rule out future collaborations with Westworld. “There will be a decision by the middle of this year. One option is to hire people: it is important to have our own skills.” Another option is to select a partner. “We have a contact in the US,” he says, “and there will be a selection process. But Westworld is obviously on our radar screen.”
Westworld Interactive: finding persuasive, fast and dynamic ways of putting information in front of Andersen’s customers
Andersen first approached Westworld Interactive in May 1996. Says MD Angus Robertson: “Andersen wanted to repurpose its knowledge capital and put it into a piece of software which would enable it to take clients on a journey and access and interact with business messages, case studies and management simulation scenarios relevant to the chemicals business on a global scale.” It was quite a challenge, he adds, because of the sheer volume of information involved.
Westworld’s original brief was to put forward ideas on the visual metaphor upon which the whole application would hang.
Provision for links to the Internet and Andersen’s Knowledge Exchange, the ability to handle any media type and full editing facilities had to be considered. And the ability to save pre-set journeys and a full set of navigation and tracking controls for the complex FutureChem structure were also required.
“We had to find a structure which could accommodate an enormous amount of information but would also enable people to move easily through that information and do things in it. Our speciality is making multimedia very seductive and that’s what we had to do – find a way of visualising it that would tempt people to go forward and explore.”
In June Westworld staff visited Andersen’s technology park in Nice where part of the authoring tool was to be written, and in August the initial FutureChem design concept was presented in Frankfurt.
“It was a 3D model of a futuristic chemicals tower,” says Robertson, “which takes the user on a number of journeys into knowledge sites where sets of topics are illustrated by a wide range of media such as video, animation, stills and audio.”
He adds: “It was different from anything we had designed before. It had a very high specification and contained fairly ground-breaking features – some of which were borrowed from the games environment. I don’t think there is anything quite like it in the corporate world in terms of multimedia.”
Westworld became increasingly involved in the project, partnering Andersen’s Nice technology park on the development of the authoring tool. Says Robertson: “The levels of complexity involved meant that we were asked to collaborate on programming the back end and integrating all the things going into it.”
By the end of September 1996 a prototype was ready. “It was an extremely fast-track, intensive programme,” says Robertson. “We had eight or nine people working on it flat out.”
A round of testing in workshops and seminars began with the prototype being flown out to Dupont Industries in the US on Concorde. Upgrades followed in February and September 1997, with technical and user documentation and laptop configuration for IBM Thinkpads and Compaq Armadas.
Westworld Interactive is a multimedia communications consultancy based in London. Telephone: 0171 930 6996. E-mail: email@example.com.
Mary Huntington is a freelance journalist