An In-Depth Look at Bill Gates’ New Business Book

REDMOND, Wash., March 24, 1999 — Bill Gates, whose first book, The Road Ahead , sold more than 2.5 million copies, today unveiled his latest effort: Business @ the Speed of Thought , published by Warner Books.

At the heart of the new book is a single idea: For businesses to think and move quickly enough to succeed in the fast-paced digital economy, they must enable the flow of digital information. While customers’ needs and competitive challenges are escalating, digital tools are making fast corporate reflexes possible. “The typical company has made 80 percent of the investment in the technology that can give it a healthy flow of information, yet is typically getting only 20 percent of the benefits that are now possible,” Gates notes. Success, he says, requires a company to build a digital nervous system, “providing a well-integrated flow of information to the right part of the organization at the right time.”

The book covers three broad areas of business: commerce, business operations and knowledge management. Each chapter is structured around a business or management issue, showing how digital processes can solve problems in fundamentally new ways and increase employee effectiveness and responsiveness. Gates avoids abstract management or technical theory, focusing instead on the many pragmatic ways that digital technology can be applied to improve business action and thinking. He describes how a digital nervous system — a set of digital processes that companies use to run their business and respond to customers — can be created with technology that companies most likely already have.

In the book, Gates discusses how the combination of the PC, email, the Internet and a proliferation of new digital devices is driving seven technical “inflection points,” or sudden and irreversible changes in the market:

  • Most business employees and all knowledge workers will use personal computers every day for almost all of their jobs, and digital processes will replace most paper-based business processes.

  • Most households will have PCs.

  • Most businesses and most households will have high-speed connections to the World Wide Web.

  • E-mail will become as common a method of communication between people as the telephone is today.

  • Most information–credit card and utility bills, bank statements and even newspapers–will arrive electronically.

  • Digital appliances, single-purpose or limited-purpose devices, will become the dominant forms for photography, for video, for audio, for TV, for cell phones, and for new appliances in the home.

  • Notebook computers will become computer notebooks, a new device that will enable users to take notes just as they do today with a pen and notepad and will contain all of their personal data, from phone numbers to street maps to family photographs.

These seven technical inflection points will create three fundamental business shifts:

  • Most transactions between business and consumer, business and business, and consumer and government will become self-service digital transactions. Intermediaries will evolve to add value or perish.

  • Customer service will become the primary value-added function in every business. Human involvement in service will shift from routine, low-value tasks to high-value, personal consultation on important issues–problems or desires–for the customer.

  • The pace of transactions and the need for more personalized attention to customers will drive companies to adopt digital processes internally if they have not yet adopted them for efficiency reasons. Companies will use a digital nervous system to regularly transform their internal business processes to adapt to an environment that constantly changes because of customer needs and competition.

With these coming changes in mind, Gates outlines twelve steps that businesses should take to make certain they’re getting the most out of their technology investments to get smarter workers, more effective overall corporate performance and more satisfied customers:

  1. Integrate e-mail into your organization so that you can act on news with reflex-like speed.

  2. Use digital tools to get information out to everyone, to analyze important business data, and to share insights.

  3. Automate routine tasks so workers are free to think.

  4. Use technology to create virtual teams.

  5. Replace paper forms with efficient on-line forms.

  6. Use digital tools to replace one-task jobs with jobs that add value.

  7. Use digital tools to get feedback on products fast, and use the feedback to improve quality faster.

  8. Use technology to redefine your business and expand your boundaries.

  9. Use technology to deliver new kinds of customer service.

  10. Trade information for time, becoming a just-in-time operation.

  11. Eliminate the middleman and deal directly with customers. If you are a middleman, use the technology to add value.

  12. Let customers solve their own problems using new technology.

To show how these steps are put into practice in today’s business world, Gates cites numerous examples from more than 20 leading companies across various industries, including aerospace, banking, book publishing, education and health care. A checklist of business and technical lessons drawn from the material concludes each chapter.

Gates and collaborator Collins Hemingway began work on the book in September 1997, finishing at the end of 1998. Gates “beta-tested” the manuscript in a review process involving a number of CEOs and business leaders, and their comments were incorporated into the finished book. As one CEO remarked after reading a late draft, the many different examples in the book, taken together, provide a “template” for how a CEO can apply digital processes in almost any company. The 400-plus page book combines business insights with a how-to approach to technology.

Business @ the Speed of Thought is being published simultaneously in 24 languages and will be available in more than 60 countries. A companion Web site at http://www.speed-of-thought.com/ provides more in-depth information on some of the examples and topics covered in the book.

Gates has arranged for the author’s share of the proceeds to be donated to support community-based programs, worldwide, that use technology in innovative ways to support education and skills development for disadvantaged children. An initial grant of $500,000 has been awarded to the International Youth Foundation to finance projects in Poland, South Africa, the Philippines and the United States. Warner Books is also donating a portion of its proceeds to the same causes..

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