Does IT matter?

FRAMINGHAM (10/21/2003) - Publishing a book in response to a magazine story characterizes the strong and varied response to the "IT Doesn't Matter" article in the May issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR). Author Nicholas G. Carr, an HBR editor who left around the time of the article's publication, was summarily lambasted and vilified by CIOs, technology company executives, and IT magazine editors.

The subsequent book -- or, should I say, booklet -- IT Doesn't Matter: Business Processes Do, by Howard Smith and Peter Fingar, spends 128 pages bashing Carr, but at times grudgingly accepts some of his reasoning. The book -- its purpose being to debunk Carr's piece and seemingly hype other books by the authors -- was panned, if a handful of reader reviews count for much.

In the book, some IT luminaries label Carr's piece as "dangerous." One said Carr misunderstood what IT is. Another said Carr viewed IT from within a "sterile vacuum." Four months after the article appeared, the responses sound like a collective over-reaction from a group with vested interests in IT.

Carr's major point is that IT has become a commodity like electricity and that adoption of new technology should be analyzed more for risk than opportunity. He urges readers to "spend less; follow, don't lead" and avoid deploying technology in "radical new ways." IT should no longer represent a strategic pillar, such as brand or product uniqueness.

It's a depressing assessment of IT's future, but one that had to be said by someone sooner or later. "I don't think IT has changed the fundamental rules of business," Carr says. And it's a wake-up call for those of us still riding the IT gravy train. Frankly, I find what Carr says a refreshing break from marketing mumbo jumbo we are subjected to day in and day out from IT vendors.

My biggest gripe is the headline. "IT Doesn't Matter" would have been a great headline had it been accurate standing on its own or had it truly represented the guts of the story. It is a great headline, but it overstates the case Carr makes in the article, which you can get at HBR's Web site or from for $7. Most of us would agree that IT does matter, suggesting the headline was little more than a naked attempt to get attention.

"If you don't read the article, there is a disconnect (with the headline)," Carr concedes. And some people won't read the article, and some of those will remember the headline and possibly even act on it in some way. But such possibilities hardly qualify as "dangerous." "I expected there would be strong reaction from parts of the IT industry, but I'm surprised how long the debate has gone on," Carr says.

Carr is writing a book entitled Does IT Matter?, due out next spring. He says he will examine how software is just as much a commodity as hardware and explore shared IT infrastructures. Other than that, he won't give away much of anything else.

Who's Your CIO, Baby?

As for CIOs, Carr sees a diminished role for them in the future, largely shut out from strategic decision making. (If I were a CIO, historically a job with little longevity, articles like this would make me nervous.)

"There've been two ideas, and that is that the CIO is a driver of strategy and a big-picture person. That role is becoming less valuable. We are going to see technical skills becoming more valuable (anyone remember the MIS director?). It's putting together all this stuff and getting it to work the way you want to work. Technical skills have been undervalued lately. And the CIO can play the drive-out-cost game. As the second most important exec next to the CEO, I don't see that happening."

Indeed! About 10 years ago, I interviewed the CIO of AT&T Corp., who had something like another 21 CIOs reporting to him. He didn't dirty his hands understanding individual technologies. His concern was the big picture, not how you dump millions of customer bills from an older IBM IMS database into the SQL environment. That was left to minions, even though it was the kind of cost-squeezing project that Carr says should be IT's primary focus.

Increasingly in drug discovery and healthcare, CIOs come from the ranks of the business. They are physicians in healthcare who double as CIOs, or drug researchers who either have an MBA or a substantial side interest in technology that propels them into the top IT job. Executives with these types of backgrounds owe their careers to the primary business activity more than technology deployment and oversight.

A good example is CareGroup Health System in Boston, where John Halamka, M.D., serves as CIO. (In healthcare, there is fierce debate about who should control IT -- CIO-types or medical informaticists.) The same can be found at GlaxoSmithKline, where CIO Ford Calhoun has a Ph.D. in microbiology and a background in drug research and development.

As to the central question, the value of IT is best assessed by individual organizations. How much easier did it make a job or process? Was the return on investment big enough and achieved quickly enough? Did it open up new markets and bring in more customers? Was there a correlation to the bottom line? I don't think anyone would argue that IT hasn't improved healthcare and the search for new cures.

Blanket assessments spanning all industries are as valuable as any set of generalizations, usually best stuck in business history books. Certainly, genomics wouldn't even be a notion without cheap, powerful computers and researchers willing to bet on it. That said, I'm glad Carr wrote the article.

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