by May 1, 1999 0 comments
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Bill Gates’ second book is about the impact of
technology on the very nature of business itself. And how it will fundamentally change,
thanks to a “disarmingly simple idea”–the flow of digital information
through an enterprise, and beyond it.

The Road Ahead was a look at future technology, and that book had to be
hurriedly updated because the real-world technology of the Internet overtook the first
edition’s predictions. Business @ the Speed of Thought is about business.
Aimed at “managers at all levels”, this is a useful overview for anyone
interested in being competitive–and, perhaps, staying alive–in business beyond
2000.

The book centers on a picturesque analogy and theme: a digital
nervous system. It’s probably no coincidence that this also abbreviates to DNS, the
domain name service that’s the backbone of Internet addressing. When working on a
speech for a CEO summit, says Gates, “a new concept popped into my head: the digital
nervous system. The corporate, digital equivalent of our nervous system, providing a
well-integrated flow of information to the right part of the organization at the right
time. It requires a combination of hardware and software, but it’s distinguished from
a mere network of computers by the accuracy, immediacy and richness of the information it
brings to knowledge workers, and the insight and collaboration made possible
by the system.”

“Business at the speed of thought” will be driven in part
by the information access and tools that will alter the lifestyle of consumers, and their
expectations of business.

“If the 1980s were about quality and the 1990s were about
reengineering,” says Gates, “The 2000s will be about velocity. When the increase
in velocity of business is great enough, the very nature of business changes. A
manufacturer or retailer that responds to changes in sales in hours instead of weeks is no
longer at heart a product company, but a service company that has a product
offering.”

Today’s companies are used to using technology largely to
“automate old processes and make them move faster,” and not to fundamentally
change the nature of the business. “Senior managers take the absence of timely
information as a given…they’re not used to rapid information.”

Among Gates’ recommendations for the first steps to a
“DNS”:

  • Insist that communication flow through the
    organization over e-mail, so that you can act on news with reflex-like speed.
  • Use digital tools to create cross-departmental
    virtual teams that can share knowledge and build on each other’s ideas in real time,
    worldwide. Use digital tools to capture corporate history and process for use by anyone.
  • Convert every paper process to a digital process,
    freeing knowledge workers for more important tasks.
  • Use digital systems to route customer complaints
    immediately to the people who can improve a product or service.
  • Decrease cycle time by using digital transactions
    with all suppliers and partners…
  • Use digital tools to help customers solve problems
    for themselves, and reserve personal contact to respond to complex, high-value customer
    needs.

A companion to the book is not a CD, but a Website:
speed-of-thought.com. Apart from excerpts from and summaries of the book, the Website
shares many very readable case studies about Boeing, Xerox and others who, over the years,
have had to implement a "DNS". There’s also a section to help you evaluate
your company’s infotech status, and to answer the question: Do you have a digital
nervous system in place? The site suggests a number of "DNS solutions partners",
including Baan, Cisco, Compaq, EDS, E&Y, HP, KPMG—and, of course, Microsoft.

Yes, Microsoft should get a major PR and sales fillip from this book
and the Website: they cover a large number of examples and processes within Microsoft and
other companies, all using, of course, Microsoft tools.

"Thousands of suppliers and independent contractors meant
thousands of paper invoices—which meant too many opportunities for an invoice to be
misplaced or processed improperly. Microsoft needed a way to process invoices more
efficiently, which it found with MS Invoice, a Web-based application that has not only
streamlined the Accounts Payable process while improving process controls, but has also
reduced internal processing costs—from $19 per invoice to less than $4 per
invoice."

Are you about to dash off to buy MS Invoice after reading this? Even
if you don’t, you’ll find this a very useful book indeed. And as readable as its
catchy I-wish-I-had-thought-of-that title, doubtless with some eminent co-authoring.
Strongly recommended. Excerpts

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