A billionaire's book that every executive must read

Business@the Speed of Thought by Bill Gates Penguin pounds 18.99
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The Independent Online
Bill Gates is a man who sparks extreme reactions. Go to the Amazon web site and you will find dozens of vitriolic comments among the customer reviews so far posted for this book. He is criticised for saying nothing new, for being long-winded, for pushing Microsoft software and for getting it wrong in his last book (which virtually ignored the internet in its first edition). One scathingly dismisses it as a book suitable only for senior managers and chief executives.

That is, perhaps, the point. This isn't a book aimed at Silicon Valley nerds or even at the general public. It is designed to help somebody running a business face up to the digital revolution (preferably, of course, by using Microsoft software).

The core belief is stated on the first page: "How you gather, manage, and use information will determine whether you win or lose." Two linked themes run through the book: how to create a "digital nervous system", to link all information in your business electronically, and how to make the internet central to how you do business.

Gates believes that most companies have made 80 per cent of the investment they need in new technology but are only getting 20 per cent of the benefit because the information simply isn't connected together or is too hard to call up.

Compaq, for instance, used to take 45 days to bring its world-wide sales figures together. Now it is down to one day and will soon be down to four hours. The book paints a picture of empowered employees able to find any information they need at the touch of a button and "drill down" to find the detail. Crucially such systems will route customer complaint directly into product improvements.

Enemy Number One is paper. In 1996, Gates asked for a copy of every paper form used by Microsoft and ended up with a pile of 1,000. He decreed that they must all go. Three years on they are down to 60 forms (including 10 required by government and 40 by outside firms).

The internet is central to these developments. Gates shows how a web site can provide vastly more information to customers. Marriott Hotels' site gives more information on each hotel than it ever could over the phone. Merrill Lynch customers can display all financial information and research reports, chart stock performance and compare these to competitors within two seconds.

The word evangelical is an under-statement for Gates' belief in the future that is being built. "The tools of the Industrial Age extended the capabilities of our muscles. The tools of the digital age will extend the capabilities of our minds."

We have a long way to go. Currently, 95 per cent of information is stored on paper, Gates tells us. Just 1 per cent is in electronic form. Governments are especially swamped by paper. The Pentagon, apparently, spends more on checking and processing travel requests ($2.3bn) than on the travel itself ($2bn).

The book is packed with examples from companies around the world. The main UK one is Marks and Spencer, which must raise some doubts. The period when the retail giant implemented a system giving complete and instant information to buyers was the same one when they seemed to lose touch with what their customers wanted.

Is there a danger of having so much information you can't see the wood for the trees? An M&S buyer can change the sandwich order mid-day in response to the weather, but seems unable to understand the wider needs of the market.

Overall, though, the critics are right that the book is long-winded and repetitive. And it is hugely biased in favour of PCs and, implicitly, solutions based on Microsoft software. If you already have a paper-less office and have the web at the core of your business, there may be little new. However for the other 99 per cent of us, this book is a must read. Not just because of the technical possibilities it describes but because it puts them in terms of practical business benefits. It will both terrify you that you are being left behind and challenge you to do something about it.

Henry Stewart is founder of the information technology training company Happy Computers