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Business Technology: Surviving The Three-Question Exercise

Quick: When you hear the name General Electric, what comes to mind? Bringing good things to life? Jack Welch? Jet engines? Financing? Six Sigma? Light bulbs? Or do you think of an IT software and services company? One that offers "clinical information systems and Six Sigma-based management tools to enable a real-time, integrated electronic medical record" extending from hospitals to health-care systems and now into physicians' offices?

That's the newest venture for one of the world's most valuable and visible corporations, a global conglomerate that has defied conventional wisdom stating that conglomerates are dinosaurs and that the only path to success in the 21st century is the one marked focus, focus, focus. Last week, GE Medical Systems, a $9 billion maker of medical imaging and technology, acquired Millbrook Corp., a privately held supplier of record-keeping software for physicians' offices. And the name of the business that will oversee the software company is telling: GE Medical Systems Information Technologies, a separate business within the $9 billion Medical Systems unit.

Which raises the Three Questions exercise that's been trotted out before in this space but that deserves another look as companies of every type in every market look for growth opportunities. And the first of the Three Questions is this: What business are you in today? I think you'll be amazed at how often you'll get a reply along the lines of, "Hmm, that's a tough question," or "Well, that depends," or "That's not a relevant question." Then ask, "In six months, what business will your customers want you to be in?" And you'll probably find some people who'll reply, "How should I know?" or "Why do customers always have to change their minds about what they want from me?" Then Question Three: "In 12 months, what business will your customers demand that you be in?"

A raft of new economic reports reinforced growing perceptions that the U.S. economy isn't heading back into recession and appears to be on course to grow, albeit modestly, in the months ahead....The Commerce Department reported that third-quarter inflation-adjusted gross domestic product rose at a surprisingly robust annual rate of 4.0%, up from an earlier estimate of 3.1%....More encouraging for the future, the Conference Board said its consumer confidence index rose to 84.1 in November from 79.6 in October.

-- The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 27

If we can provide honest and clear answers to those Three Questions, we then have to map our own companies' ability--or inability--to hit those cutover points in six months and 12 months. Do we have in our own companies the nimbleness, agility, and requisite will to adapt and evolve not in time with some preordained Three-Year Strategic Plan but rather in step with customers' needs? And if we don't, how can we make it so?

What business is GE in? Well, it's in a lot of businesses, but one of them is now very clearly health-care software. That came about as a result of the company's desire to extend its range of products and related services and expertise more deeply into the fields where it's already a major player. In the not-too-distant past, GE's footprint in the health-care field was limited to giant imaging machines. Now it's in physicians' offices, which means it very directly and specifically touches patients, the customer's customer. And as those customers, the doctors, see what this new software and services can do for them, GE will have to start to ask itself once again that third question: In 12 months, what business will those customers demand that GE be in? Because that's where GE will have to be just one year later.

We're going to do a live version of our Three Questions exercise early next year at our Spring Conference with some participants from great and rapidly evolving companies, along with plenty of interaction with attendees. The conference, which will run March 2 to 5 in Amelia Island, Fla., also will feature speakers including Procter & Gamble CIO Steve David, Dell Computer CIO Randy Mott, and Richard Clarke, the federal government's cybersecurity czar. To find out all the details, check out

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