Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Zuckerberg’s Vision: All Eyes on Oculus

The term visionary leadership came into the leadership lexicon in the 1980s; the media would popularize it as “the vision thing,” an expression that President George H.W. Bush used to counter critics who disparaged him as falling short of Ronald Reagan’s anti-government vision. Perhaps the preceding dyspeptic decade, weighted down with OPEC, Watergate, stagflation, and Carter’s micromanagement, fueled not only Reagan’s “government is the problem” vision, but also a thirst for leadership vision (and charisma) itself. From this macro scale, the (mis)appropriation of the term by garden-variety CEOs can easily come off as claiming a bit too much (i.e., a gray lily gilding itself in gold). This claim may become all the more apparent or transparent by demonstrating that the term does indeed apply to a few notable exceptions, including CEOs such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. In this essay, I focus on the Facebook founder in particular.

On March 25, 2014, Facebook bought Oculus VR, a start-up venture specializing in virtual-reality technology, for $2 billion. This included $1.6 billion worth of Facebook shares; hence Zuckerberg was making use of his company’s highly valued stock to expand strategically.[1] The strategic element needs some unpacking here. Unlike Facebook’s announcement a month earlier that the company would purchase WhatsApp for about $15 billion in equity and $4 billion in cash, Zuckerberg’s vision of social-media experience in virtual reality laid beyond the sights of Wall Street. John Shinal lays out the problem well. “Wall Street didn’t mind when Facebook gave away that huge chuck of equity because a possible future payoff from acquiring WhatsApp was at least in view—something that can’t be said of the Oculus deal.”[2] Accordingly, Facebook shares fell 7 percent on the Oculus announcement, whereas the stock had risen almost 3 percent on the WhatsApp announcement.

One day, Facebook may offer an expanded virtual social element.
(Image Source: pcgamer.com)

To virtually no avail in relaying concerns that social experience in virtual reality could not become a revenue engine for his company, Zuckerberg claimed that the Oculus deal would enable Facebook to proffer “a network where people can communicate and buy things.”[3] In other words, strategy was indeed on Zuckerberg’s mind even as he formulated his vision of internet-extended social experience. That a vision is not necessarily realizable in the existing infrastructure does not mean that the idyllic picture is cordoned off from business strategy; in fact, such vision may distinguish visionary leadership from the term’s quotidian or common use as jargon by the typical CEO while not necessarily sacrificing strategic leadership

Zuckerberg’s vision stands out in that it applies virtual reality to the social element of social media rather than as typically done at the time to video games. For all the "value added" in this vision, it is not as "far out there" as Wall Street analysts may suppose. 

As a sort of a "vision on vision" move, I submit movies and video games could fuse with the social element of social reality in social media. Imagine "sitting" in a virtual living room with a few Facebook friends. After chatting for a while, you all watch a movie, only rather than watching it on a virtual screen, the film itself is shot and edited to be viewed in virtual reality so you and your friends are virtually surrounded by the world of the film. That is, you are all immersed in the visual story-world, watching the characters interact. In such a way, the suspension of disbelief gets a boost as you and your friends loose yourselves in the film's world. Finally, at the conclusion of the film you and your friends are in a virtual coffee shop at a table chatting about the film. Perhaps the film's director or an actor "stops by" the "chat room" to join in. Imagine discussing the innovative computer technology used to film Avatar with James Cameron while in virtual reality! 

Even such a vision on top of vision need not be assumed to be totally disparate with strategic leadership and thus too futuristic to be relevant to business and have a discounted (present) value today. Zuckerberg could take a look at acquiring a content provider such as Netflix or Hulu. Facebook could offer the content seamlessly right away to Facebook users for viewing on a computer or television screen (or ipad). Additionally, the social media company could establish some relationship with a person (e.g., James Cameron) or a company in the film industry to develop content oriented to being viewed on Oculus virtual reality. 

In short, real visionary leadership in business need not be mutually exclusive with strategic leadership (and thus with monetized value today). From the standpoint of Zuckerberg's vision and my ideational extension above, we can see just how much “the vision thing” has been conveniently misappropriated by pedestrian CEOs and their epigones to puff up, or distend, their own importance. In other words, real visionary leadership in business lies within the rubric of transformative rather than transactional leadership. While I’m not sure if the needs of followers are necessarily transformed as a result of a business leader's vision, as in Burns’ notion of transformational leadership, I submit that for vision to apply to business, the content must be sufficient to intimate or imply a transformed company, industry, and even society.[4]

1. John Shinal, “Tech Bull’s Run Stirs Up Some Froth,” USA Today, March 31, 2014.
2. Ibid.
3. Jon Swartz and Brett Molina, “Facebook Snaps Up Oculus,” USA Today, March 26, 2014.
4. How such a societal transformative impact differs from that which a political vision (e.g., Reagan’s) can have is an interesting question. I suspect the respective impact ‘types” differ qualitatively.