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More Billboard Than Bible

Business @ The Speed Of Thought: Using a Digitial Nervous System
July 1, 1999

A sense-and-respond organization, according to a Harvard Business School collection of the same name (reviewed in TR, May/June 1998), is a business literally wired to detect changes in customers’ needs and to quickly launch new products or services that will exploit opportunity or avert disaster. Microsoft, one of the contributors’ favorite examples, earned extra merit badges for its rapid rebound in the Internet browser wars of 1995-96. Now Bill Gates has decided to cash in on this cachet with a volume that exalts the electronic reflexes behind the success of Microsoft and other firms.

Microsoft’s secret, it turns out, is that it uses Microsoft software.Aside from Windows, Word, Excel, Explorer, et cetera, the company has built internal applications such as MS Sales for sales reporting; MS OnTarget for project accounting; MS Market for procurement; MS HeadTrax for tracking personnel changes; MS Reports for interfacing with expense, customer, contract and budget databases; and MS Invoice, a private Web site allowing contractors to submit invoices electronically. “We have infused our organization with a new level of electronic-based intelligence,” Gates enthuses. Such infusions will no doubt be available to others as soon as Microsoft boxes the tools Gates advertises.

So how exactly did Microsoft’s digital nervous system help it respond to what Gates calls “bad news on a colossal scale,” the unexpected transformation of the Internet from an academic tool into a global commercial network? The impetus for a response “didn’t come from me or from our other executives,” Gates writes. It came from “a small number of dedicated employees who saw events unfolding. Through our electronic systems they were able to rally everybody to their cause.”

Sounds impressive, until you realize the “electronic system” Gates is referring to is e-mail. Equally deflating,Microsoft’s electronic senses apparently failed to sense that the company’s marketing practices would provoke a federal antitrust suit. The future is undeniably digital, and Microsoft will no doubt profit. But Business@The Speed of Thought is more like a billboard than a bible.

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