Bringing enthusiasm back into IT

Opinion piece

Four years ago, Nicholas Carr wrote his now-famous article “Does IT Matter?” in the Harvard Business Review. A firestorm of protest erupted in its wake, but business managers generally bought Carr’s message: application packages and infrastructure are commodities. Buy cheap, and ride the assets to death, because real innovation and competitive differentiation aren’t found in IT once everyone’s got the same stuff.

IT vendors have spent the past four years combating this message, yet few of us have jumped on their bandwagons. If you’re an SAP client, for instance, have you moved past the R/3 version yet? (None of the clients I advise have any plans to upgrade until forced to). It’s not just about SAP, of course; the same is true for JD Edwards clients, PeopleSoft clients, Oracle apps clients and the rest. We don’t upgrade until we have to, which means all the vendor innovation brought to market does nothing to counter the “it’s all a commodity” message.

Then there’s infrastructure. I know of several organisations that have concerns about disaster recovery. All of them considered running Linux on a mainframe, in partitions, to replace Unix servers. Mainframe-based disaster recovery is cheap (for one of these organisations, it was one-fifth of the recovery vendor’s price for putting a few servers in the site), effective and readily available.

Every one of them decided to go to a Wintel architecture instead. One proudly told me it was going to use AMD-based servers, as though this were daring. They all still have the disaster recovery problem staring them in the face.

Why did they go the way they did? Groupthink. No one they knew had done anything other than junk Unix servers for Windows servers, so they followed the herd.

Why are IT people so conservative? None of the IT people I talk to think their business colleagues will support a package upgrade, much less real innovation. It’s not that they’ve asked them, you understand — they’re afraid to do that, sure that they’ll face rejection. So the myth continues: Software has an indefinite shelf life, even though no other assets in any company do and all of them get replaced periodically.

Therefore, having to pay for an upgrade because our version is withdrawn from support is proof that IT vendors are predatory. (Somehow, the assumption seems to be that vendors are not supposed to run a profit-making business). But what did we, as IT professionals, do to prepare for regular upgrades? Nothing.

Infrastructure does get refreshed, but that’s something that comes with its own myth: Go with the majority — they can’t be wrong. In an IT world with technologies at different scales and price points, that approach leads companies to choose wrong over and over, simply to avoid defending a minority view.

The right choice takes all the factors into account, not just cost and not just the supplier’s market share. Vendors, too, need paying customers to deliver real innovation — if we won’t buy their newer products, why invest in development?

The longer we act this way, the more Carr’s view that IT just isn’t worth it will become conventional business wisdom. Already we see how low IT-related enrolments at tertiary institutions are. Why go into a boring field?

Bringing the excitement back to IT starts with IT itself. Get out there and sell the value of the future — your own future depends on it.

Stewart is a former CEO and senior vice president at Meta Group. He can be contacted at

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