Bill to IBM: 'Move over, Big Blue'

Bill to IBM: 'Move over, Big Blue'

Bill to IBM: 'Move over, Big Blue' by Steve IrelandKarl von Clausewitz described war as the continuation of diplomacy by other means. If for war and diplomacy you substitute book writing and marketing, then I believe you'll have an accurate idea of the intent behind Bill Gates' new book, Business @ the Speed of Thought. Yet along the way, Gates has fashioned a weapon that could be of use to readers of CIO. Unlike his earlier book The Way Ahead (1995), which was a gee-whiz type of book aimed at Microsoft's traditional mass market customer base, the ultimate purpose of Gates' new book is the marketing of Microsoft as a partner for big business. He is writing as one CEO to other CEOs and their executive teams. Indeed, Gates notes that he got feedback on early drafts of his book from the CEOs of a number of blue-chip companies -- Alcoa, Johnson & Johnson, Bell Atlantic, and GEICO Insurance (part of the stable of his good mate, investor Warren Buffett).

As marketing concepts go, such a book is an effective and classy way of positioning Gates' company as a player that corporates should talk business with. It's in effect a nudge saying: "Move over, IBM". Microsoft's wooing of large enterprises has come a long way in the last half dozen years. Not so very long ago, when Microsoft was looking to buy personal financial software company Intuit, the banks and other financial institutions looked in fear at Microsoft's apparent ambitions to muscle in to their markets. (And why would you like the new kid in school if he threatened to eat your lunch?) But now the relationship is much more comfortable and relaxed. So warm, in fact, that Gates' book was officially launched in Australia by John Mulcahy, head of banking and financial services for Commonwealth Bank, which has pioneered use of Windows NT in the corporate world. Most of the messages in Business @ the Speed of Thought will be familiar to Australian CIOs. Gates' statement that "information technology and business are becoming inextricably interwoven" is, after all, the basis of the magazine you are reading. But this is to miss the point. The relevance of Gates' book is that he is flagging that, finally, the bulk of business leaders are ready to absorb this kind of message.

Gates pegs his book upon a central metaphor of information systems being the 'digital nervous system' of a company, and he illustrates this with plentiful examples. He covers areas such as the effect of the Internet on how we interact with customers or add value. He speaks of the importance of communicating and acting upon bad news quickly. He details why it may be necessary for mature companies periodically to "bet big" on radical change, as Gates maintains Boeing did with its 747s and 777s. He argues it makes sense to share financial numbers like costs and sales results widely within your organisation. He advises CEOs to ask what their information infrastructure enables, rather than merely what costs it reduces. Elements of the book to be wary of are its message that only with Microsoft's Windows based products can one build a "digital nervous system". There is no mention of alternative technologies, of Java or Linux, or anything remotely competitive. The only reference to IBM is to its old failure to understand the PC revolution in the early '80s. Never mind that Big Blue has successfully reinvented itself as a leading services company built around the concept of electronic business. That's why the book is an act of marketing rather than scholarship.

We all know senior executives who haven't "got it" when it comes to the new age of electronically based business. Perhaps you might envisage donating a copy of Business @ the Speed of Thought to them. After all, if a businessman as successful as Mr Gates says that "The purpose of IT is to make money!", then how can they gainsay your far-reaching plans? In this way, and to this extent at least, Bill Gates is on your side. Bill Gates, Business @ the Speed of Thought. Viking, 470 pages. $39.95Steve Ireland is publisher of ComputerWorld newspaper

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