Bill Gates, A company should constantly be thinking about its options

The best way to put distance between your company and the crowd is to do an excellent job with information. There are more competitors today. There is more information available about them and about the market, which is now worldwide. The winners will be the ones who develop a world-class digital nervous system so that information can easily flow through their companies for maximum and constant learning.

I know what you’re going to say: no, it’s efficient processes! It’s quality! It’s winning market share and creating brands that are recognized! It’s getting close to customers! Success, of course, depends on all of these things. Nobody can help you if your processes aren’t efficient, if you don’t care about quality, if you don’t work hard to build your brand, if your customer service is poor. A bad business plan will fail however good your information is. And bad practice will spoil a good plan. If you do enough things badly, you’ll go out of business.

But whatever else you have on your side today—smart employees, excellent products, loyal customers, cash in the bank —you need a fast flow of good information to make processes efficient, raise quality, and improve the way you put your plan into practice. Most companies have good people working for them. Most companies want to treat their customers well. Good, useful data exists somewhere within most organizations. Information flow is the lifeblood of your company because it enables you to get the most out of your people and to learn from your customers. See if you have the information to answer these questions:

* What do customers think about your products? What problems do they want you to fix ? What new features do they want you to add ? What problems do your partners have as they sell your products or work with you ? Where are your competitors winning business from you, and why ? Will customers’ changing demands force you to develop new capacities ? What new markets are appearing that you should enter?

McDonald’s has the strongest brand name and market share and a good reputation for quality. But a market analysis recently suggested the company change its business model. McDonald’s has occasionally promoted movie-linked toys. The analysis suggested that the company should use its well-known small- profit product to sell the high-profit toys, and not the other way round. Such a change is unlikely, but not unthinkable in today’s fast-changing business world.

No company can assume that its position in the market is safe. A company should constantly be thinking about its options. One company might be hugely successful if it broke into another business. Another company might find that it should stay with what it knows and does best. The most important thing is that a company’s managers have the information to understand where they can compete and what their next great market could be.

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