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Business at the speed of thought: Using a digital nervous system

by Bill Gates (with Collins Hemingway)

Introduction
Speed of execution and efficient problem-solving are the key to success of any business. But
how does one go about it? In his bestselling book, none other than Bill Gates presents a
revolutionary new way called the digital nervous system. Who better to take business advice
than the mastermind behind the global success of Microsoft and one of the richest men on
Earth? Written during his peak at the very end of the previous millennium, the book still holds its
place as one of the seminal works in the field, offering the practical advice and the "know how"
needed to climb to the top.

Who is this book best suited for?


No matter whether you are running a small business employing a staff of five or an international
conglomerate spanning a few different continents, you can benefit from the wisdom and the
advice shared in this book and use a good portion of it as a blueprint for setting up your own
company on the road to success. If you want to get the most from technology and enable your
business to respond faster to your customer's needs, if you need to adjust to changing business
demands and flourish in the new digital economy - this is the tome for you.

About the author


If there is anyone on Earth who needs zero introduction, it is Bill Gates. Having held the title of
the richest man in the world on more than one occasion and being the person behind the IT
giant Microsoft as well as the global phenomenon of the 90's, the Windows OS, Gates has
cemented his status as one of the most important figures of the generation. In addition to his
impressive business achievements, he has also proven himself and a philanthropist on a
monumental scale, giving to charity perhaps more than any other person alive.

Part one: Information flow is your lifeblood


Information flow is the key to success in the digital age and the digital nervous system is
the one way to make it run smoothly, without unnecessary paper-pushing and time-
wasting, instead allowing employees to focus on solving problems efficiently.
In our digital day and age, the main differentiator in the business arena is nothing other than the
flow of information. But what is it? Michael Dertouzos defines it as "human thought applied to
data to solve a puzzle." The problem arises when the flow slows down or dries up completely
and when not all levels of management have enough access to information need to successfully
complete the task at hand. Unproductive meetings are but one sign of such a stagnation. No
business can be expected to run properly without all of company's data being but a few clicks
away from everyone in charge of running the process. Customer feedback tops the list as the
most important piece of the puzzle and the type of info that can help solve many a problem and
improve the positioning on the market tenfold. In order to have access to all information needed
at all times, we need to develop a digital nervous system. By making a list of the most
actionable questions within your line of work, you will know which type of info you will need in
order to have them answered. This will extend your employees analytical abilities the same way
machines can extend physical capabilities. This is your digital nervous system. It helps create a
paperless office, one that is not marred by unnecessary bureaucracy and administration but one
where complexity is replaced with synergy and employees can focus on value-added issues.

Part two: The internet changes everything


With increased automatisation, personalized customer service will become the primary
value-added function. Through ever-growing internet presence, your salespeople will
take on the role of consultants.
As we are already witness to the phenomenon, over time most transactions will become a part
of the self-service structure, with one after another intermediary being made redundant. Instead,
the main focus for most companies will become the customer service sector. With its orientation
towards the main focus of the business - the end buyer - it will prove to be the primary value-
added function. Already the attention to customers is becoming more personalized by the
minute, driven by greater competitiveness on the market. As the processes speed up and
growth becomes exponential, a new form of doing business takes hold of the spotlight - the
"friction-free capitalism". By its very nature it removes the middleman almost completely, instead
focusing on direct business-customer relationship. In such a fast-paced world, analysing
feedback will become the main focus, while collecting information will need to become fully
automatized. One of the ways to directly connect with the public is the world wide web. Taking
advantage of the unique prospects the internet has to offer, most of the interactions will involve
support rather than sales but, on the long run, this will prove to be the best marketing strategy
and satisfied buyers (or users, depending on your line of work) will spread the word and serve
as your community. A good web presence will effectively turn salespeople into consultants. With
constant drop in prices of PCs and other gadgets, more transactions will be performed online.
Ultimately, the web lifestyle will put the customer in charge of the relationship and enable large
companies to appear smaller and more flexible, while at the same time giving small companies
the opportunity to grow through increased efficiency. This has already proven crucial due to the
fact that the time to market any product or service is shrinking for everyone. Using digital
information thus becomes of paramount importance in overcoming the (cultural more than
technological) issue of speed. It is what the survival of the organization in the new millennium
depends on. Move (and expand) as fast as possible and you will be saved.

Part three: Manage knowledge to improve strategic thought


Bad news and the way the company treats and solves them are the fuel for progress.
Angry customers can be our greatest source of learning. Crunch the numbers with IT and
focus on value-added customer service and support.
In the new millennium, it is not good news that make companies grow - it's bad news. Strange
as it may sound at first but any organization's ability to detect, adapt to and solve issues will be
a sure sign of its success in the future. From a purely strategic point of view, it is any CEO's
major (if not main) function to look out for bad news and stir the organization in the direction of
responding to it quickly and effectively. By fostering discussion and rewarding worthy failure
(experimentation), the employees can be trained and encouraged to keep information flow free
at all times, knowing that it will help them tackle any task at hand. It is thus important to keep in
mind that bad news show us where we need the most improvement and that the most
dissatisfied customers are likely to be our greatest source of learning. If complaints are directly
tied to a fast solution, it is far more likely that you will be able succeed on the long run. But how
do we even follow all this information? Keeping the numbers in check is far more than balancing
the books on a monthly basis. The ability needs to extend to the use of data for marketing as
well as sales purposes. So know your numbers and use them wisely. Analytical software will
help you tremendously in achieving this goal, especially in the aspects of your business where
you are the most able to act on its results. It will empower you to make a shift from relying on
human resources for data collection and instead focus all your endeavours on value-added
customer service and support. This is where an actual human touch creates all the difference in
the world. Targeted marketing is but one example of such tailor-made customer experience.
With such strategy, you will be less likely to fear (or be negatively impacted by) big risks. One of
the benefits of faster and more efficient information flow will be the luxury of building every new
project on the foundations of learning based on other companies' experiences with similar
projects undertaken at any point in history, anywhere else on the globe.

Part four: Bring insight to the business operations


Many functions are now being overtaken by technology. It is becoming increasingly
important for the CEO to understand and properly manage the information flow in order
to facilitate business operations. Investing in IT infrastructure means investing into the
future.
In order to make the entire organization run like clockwork, it is essential for all line workers to
understand the inner mechanisms of the production systems. With greater insight will also come
better ability to run them well. One of the perks of such a mode of being will be the ability to
schedule maintenance even before something breaks. Task workers will be likely to disappear,
with their jobs taken over by computers or combined into larger tasks requiring purely
knowledge-based work. Portable devices which have overtaken the market in recent years
(supported by wireless internet access) can help keep the factory, the warehouse and all other
sectors connected with the management at all times. This in turn enables everyone to process
problems from a whole variety of perspectives and take advantage of technology to make
streamlined processes a thing not of imagination but of reality. Complexity has proven the death
of reengineering and simplification has become the key to solving many problems and having
the least number of workers engaged in the smallest number of handoffs. All this can only be
achieved if the CEO in charge truly understands the processes belonging to the IT sector. It has
become a must to be knowledgeable in the area as so many aspects of running a business are
now overtaken by technological advancements made in recent years. Thus the responsibility for
wise use of the IT function cannot simply be delegated to the CIO. Information technology ought
to be observed and used as a strategic resource that aids the company create additional profit.
Training costs in the IT department should thus be treated as a part of basic infrastructure costs,
or even better, as an investment for the future.

Part five: Special enterprises and expecting the unexpected


Enterprises such as those belonging to the health care system, government or
institutions of learning can all take advantage of a more functional digital nervous
system. Hierarchies need not be flattened, only information ought to flow friction-free.
A perfect example of an imperfect system is that of the American health-care. While those better
off can afford to scoot through it more or less successfully, those less privileged are exposed to
the numerous cracks in the structure. If one hospital provides excellent care, this will not
necessarily transfer to the experience to be had in another. This is largely due to the gaps in
communication and a lot of problems can (and usually do) arise because of poor coordination of
the methods. These is where a more unified and functional system would be of great benefit to
the general population as well as the employees. The same is true of the government and its
sometimes too ossified bureaucratic apparatus. Too many layers of management and
administration tend to be difficult to navigate, with communication being poor and often
obstructed by decades old methods. This applies to both developed and developing countries.
Good connection and fast exchange of information is essential too in another area - that of
education. Creating connected learning communities speeds up progress manyfold, in both
sciences and the arts. Preparing for the digital future thus becomes a lot easier. With increased
velocity of information, the goal will be to make business reflex almost instantaneously, making
strategic moves an ongoing, creative process. Still, this does not necessarily need to imply a
flattening of the hierarchy. A traditional order can be maintained even when a fast-flow of data
and an open-door talent policy is implemented. This makes for a perfect balance of the old and
the new.

End summary
Information flow is the lifeblood of any organization and is the key to success in the digital age.
Employees need to be able to focus on solving problems and not waste large amounts of time
on clunky and old-fashioned ways of moving information around.
● This is achieved through organizing and maintaining a functional digital nervous system
that will keep all the info needed at the fingertips of all levels of management to more
efficiently solve all problems.
● Through automatisation and global expansion of the internet, you are given the
opportunity to reach a much wider audience. In this process, your salespeople largely
take on the role of customer consultants.
● End-user feedback is a goldmine of information. Bad news can often be the generator
that fuels progress. With data now being gathered and processed through IT, employees
can focus on giving better customer service.
● With fast-paced technological progress comes great responsibility. The CEO must have
full grasp of IT processes in order to maintain the ability to successfully run a business.
Constant investment in the IT becomes a must.
● The health care system, government organizations and educational institutions can all
benefit from greater interconnectedness and ease of access without sacrificing their
hierarchy or structure in the process.