Back in 2003 Nicholas Carr caused huge debate with an article, and later a book, contending that IT doesn’t matter. His argument was that scarcity, not ubiquity, made a business resource truly strategic. More than three years later, do his views still hold up — and does he still stand by them?
In January Carr republished his controversial article, in serial form, his blog so readers can judge for themselves if they still agree or disagree with his views.
In a companion blog to the search software vendor Fast’s recent FastForward conference in the US, Joe McKendrick writes that Carr continues to raise a ruckus.
Carr wasn’t at the conference, but former Oracle president Ray Lane gave an opening speech in which he said Carr was right, “noting that heavy investments in technology seem to have made little or no difference in the long-term profitability of many companies.”
But not everyone at the San Diego conference agreed, writes McKendrick. Jim McGee, director of the Huron Consulting Group, told the conference the question was not whether IT mattered or not — “the questions are how does it matter, when does it matter, how does it integrate with our broader strategic agenda, and what do we as senior executives need to understand about technology’s capabilities and possibilities in order to make intelligent decisions for our particular organisation?”
McKendrick says Carr’s argument adds up when considering the commoditisation of hardware, operating systems, networks and storage.
“We’ve all become jaded by the breathless (and eye-rolling) claims of ‘revolutionary’ technologies, paradigm shifts and inflection points. He also correctly states that IT should not get full credit for corporate success.”
However, McKendrick goes on to say there has never been an expectation that IT would be solely responsible for a company’s rise or fall.
“Adroit management, supported by the right IT tools, makes the difference. A company that smartly and innovatively leverages its IT in new and creative ways will move to the head of the pack. And, thanks to IT, you don’t need a workforce of thousands to do so.”
Carr’s own views on whether IT matters do not appear to have changed in recent years. Writing on ZDNet News in October, Will Sturgeon of Silicon.com said that Carr told an audience in London that companies had been misled to believe buying technology could improve productivity.
“He said: ‘Smaller firms are more productive than large firms and yet they have less technology.’ And though he conceded it would be naïve to assume that represents the grounds for a hard and fast rule, he added it should at least ‘lead anybody to question the importance of IT’.”
Sturgeon says Carr told the CIOs that companies should spend less on IT — avoiding overspending or spending on projects which fail. He also said that successful IT management comes down to successful management — not just innovation.
“As such he said companies should resist the urge to buy new technologies and should discard any notion of the cutting edge, saying there are few companies likely to see competitive advantage by being an early adopter.”
In essence he said that most companies should be IT followers and not leaders.
“The innovator is going to pay a lot more than those who follow in the innovator’s wake.”
Sturgeon notes that Microsoft’s vice president for information worker business value, Bob McDowell, admits the industry and business customers haven’t always done themselves any favours.
“He said: ‘There was over-hype in the 90s and there was overspend.’ And he added that the IT industry is ‘still paying the price now’.”
Sturgeon also noted that Red Monk analyst James Governor says businesses should be savvier and that Carr’s words should “ring true with many people who may rather forget past over-spend or poor buying decisions.”
Sturgeon also said that Governor believes all businesses should be harder when it comes to negotiating with their vendors.
“Bring in the procurement people and the legal people and don’t worry about losing control of your IT spend.”