The legacy of Nicholas Carr

Executive confusion reigns, apparently, in regard to IT. Despite information technology having completely colonised organisations, there continues to be some kind of crisis in terms of harnessing computing power to business goals.

Executive confusion reigns, apparently, in regard to IT. Despite information technology having completely colonised organisations at this point in its history, there continues to be some kind of crisis in terms of harnessing computing power to business goals. Good connections between the IT department and chief executive are somehow not being made.

That’s one interpretation, at any rate, of the latest findings in IDC’s Forecast for Management series of annual surveys of CIO concerns. More than half of the New Zealand survey respondents –- the sample spans Australia and New Zealand -– say aligning IT with business is their biggest challenge. The man whose job it is to interpret those results, IDC’s Peter Hind, is reluctant to say IT is floundering. But he thinks the large proportion of respondents struggling with that fundamental concern are at the very least feeling in limbo. “I don’t think business is guiding IT where it wants it to go.”

He surmises that this could be a consequence of globalisation or trimmed IT budgets.

Or might it be that chief executives have been reading what Nicholas Carr wrote in

Harvard Business Review almost a year ago: that IT doesn’t matter any longer. Hind read Carr’s piece -– and so did just about every top boss at Microsoft, Intel, Hewlett-Packard and other big-name IT supply companies you can think of. If they didn’t read it, they had something to say about it. Carr documents reaction to his article, since expanded into a book called Does IT matter?, on his website . “Hogwash” is how Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer responded, while Bill Gates said “We disagree with all of this”. As anyone involved in the business would be inclined to do.

But Carr’s argument can’t be dismissed so lightly. His point is not that IT isn’t essential, but that investment in computer systems no longer guarantees a competitive edge. Hind, whose research sees him regularly meeting CIOs on both sides of the Tasman, wrote a response in Australia’s

CIO magazine, saying that since Carr's article was published every senior IT manager he met wanted to hand him a copy. More than one told him that it had been brought to their attention -- with delight -- by their finance boss.

Hind didn’t disagree with Carr’s thesis but had a suggestion for IT suppliers who saw it as threatening or had chosen to dismiss it. Hind saw it as a problem of how suppliers sell their products. “IT’s suppliers have economic models based around selling products. This breeds an organisational structure, and revenue stream, around manufacturing, installation, maintenance and forecasting. If IT suppliers are really going to help business use technology to foster innovation then they require a new train of thought in their marketing. The focus becomes the output from technology, not merely its inherent bits and bytes.”

He’s hit the nail on the head, I believe. CIOs who are running into a brick wall in persuading the chief executive of IT’s role should take up his argument. Hind will undoubtedly be expanding on it when he presents the findings of his latest survey at IDC’s annual Directions conference in Auckland on May 6. It won’t be all just research, either. The event will feature a CIO panel –- North Shore City Council’s Tony Rogers, Damian Swaffield of Sky City, Mainfreight’s Kevin Drinkwater and Mark Baker of Foodstuffs –- on the subject of relationships with suppliers. Suppliers –- and chief executives –- would do well to get along.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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