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Ten Years Later, Does IT Matter?

Taking a look back on Nicholas Carr’s seminal article from 2003

Solution CTO, IBM

My my, how time flies. I was recently reminded that it has been ten years (yikes!) since Harvard Business Review published IT Doesn’t Matter by Nicholas Carr. Ten years seems like enough time to be able to look back and see how the ideas Carr put forth in this seminal article have played out, especially given that we are in the midst of sea change that is at least partially driven by massive data generation and the rise of big data technologies designed to capitalize on it. As a reminder, Carr wrote that because every enterprise had access to the same technologies, the technologies themselves would not be a source of competitive advantage. He argued, then, that enterprises should spend less on technology since there wasn't an advantage in doing so. The article set off quite a debate at the time—but looking back, it’s clear that although Carr got some things right, he got most of it wrong. One could certainly argue that some elements of the stack have commoditized and become more readily available (in no small part due to continue growth and maturation of the open source movement, cloud, and related SaaS and PaaS options). However, during the same time period, the breadth of what IT needs to manage has expanded. That expansion in breadth has spawned a whole new set of challenges and potential solutions, and both the technologies and skills required to manage them are far from commodities. Further, if you combine the breadth of information to be managed and the depth in how it is used (analytic-orientation), we’re moving in a direction where IT plays an even more critical role in supporting data- and analytics-driven approaches to running a business. So what happened? The world changed, that’s what happened. Petabyte-sized collections of data (especially in aggregate) have become common. Companies now need to coordinate their engagement with customers across a broad array of channels. Sensors have become cheap enough to fulfill the promise of an “Internet of things.” The BYOD genie is out of the bottle. At the same time both business and end users’ expectations have soared. Today, we all have smart phones and other connected mobile devices. We can engage with friends and business connections in ways that didn’t even exist when Carr wrote his article. Business managers expect more information, sooner and increasingly predictive information. End users demand timely and relevant personalized experiences. Managing all of those demands—let alone exploiting them—has made IT more important, not less. Rather than arguing that Carr got it all wrong—he’s an awfully smart guy, and I think we owe him a debt of gratitude for sparking an important discussion—I’d suggest that the dramatic expansion in the expectations placed on IT was largely unforeseen at the time. I’d also strongly argue that while it is certainly true that that the raw capabilities of many IT components are now more widely available and standardized, more than ever it is what you do with the raw computing potential that really matters. The “doing” part—the technology strategy—is a form of technology itself, and the ability to get that right is most assuredly not a commodity. I’ll admit that I may be a tad biased on this point, since I spend all my time with firms that are actively working to use IT for competitive advantage. But these firms also drive others to follow their lead out of sheer competitive necessity. Using real-time information to influence and improve outcomes would have been difficult for Carr to envision when he wrote his seminal article, but doing this well today provides advantages that are hard to ignore. As we move into the Fit For Purpose Architecture era, this trend will only accelerate. Getting Fit For Purpose right will be directly related to an organization’s ability to be a fact- and analytics-driven business, in other words directly related to their ability to effectively compete. Fit for Purpose architectures provide the foundation for the interactive and context-aware consumer experiences consumers are demanding. To be sure, we should all be thankful for what Carr wrote—the introspection, handwringing, and heightened expectations that came out of his article made us better at what we do and helped us all keep our eyes on the ball. It has required technology providers to become more value-oriented. At the same time, increased expectations on the business side have helped to drive innovations that were barely imaginable when Carr wrote the article. So while Carr may have gotten the takeaway wrong, he helped all of us make progress towards getting it right. What do you think? Let me know in the comments.   [followbutton username='thomasdeutsch' count='false' lang='en' theme='light']

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