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Peter H. Lewis

Software to Help Introduce Products

The wisdom - if not the wit - of 30 experts in management.

Business Insight is a new expert system that purports to help businesses find the best strategies for introducing a product, for clarifying company goals and for building better understanding among members of a project team. Expert system programs are also known as knowledge bases, and they operate on the principle that business knowledge and experience can be collected, codified and made accessible through a computer program. An executive asks the computer how to solve a problem, and the computer either comes up with a suggestion or, in the process of sifting through variables, helps executives focus and come up with their own solutions.

Many strategic planning programs are on the market, but Business Insight appears to be the most comprehensive and ambitious. The developers assert that they have captured the theories and insights of 30 recognized management experts, including Michael Porter, author of "Competitive Strategy". Business Insight sorts your answers, applies its rules and generates a variety of reports that can address specific product plans or the overall health of a business.

"I have used it in a couple of situations, and we are using it now to evaluate a new product," said Gary H. Knippelmier, business development manager for the Dynatel Systems Division of the 3M Corporation in Austin, Texas, who tested early versions of the software. "The key thing is the broad perspective you get, more so than anything I have dealt with. It is a way of trying to ferret out your inconsistencies."

The program begins by interviewing the user in question and answer form, asking literally hundreds of questions that range from basic financial data to a description of the business and its market. A simple spreadsheet is incorporated into the program for gathering and refining financial data.

The fascinating thing about the process is that the questions go beyond mere facts and figures. The user is asked subjective questions as well as objective ones -- how likely is it that a competitor will retaliate, for example.

Should the product be introduced now, or should you wait for the market to develop? Should the product be priced low for market penetration, or high for maximum cash generation? What channels of distribution will be most effective? Should promotion be "push" or "pull"? How will new technologies and changing cultural trends affect the business?

It takes several hours to answer the questions, if the user gives them the attention they deserve. Even if the program did nothing else, the Q. and A. part is valuable in helping an executive identify overall strengths and weaknesses. The questions often include helpful descriptions and summaries of business principles.

The point of the program, however, is to help a company pick the optimum conditions for offering a new product. After it analyzes the situation, it generates a scorecard that rates the chances of success and suggests areas that can be modified. It identifies strengths and weaknesses, and points out inconsistencies in a product plan.

As a guide for planning products and devising a competitive strategy, Business Insight is an exhaustive checklist. It imposes a logical pattern on what is all too often a haphazard process.


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