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Rough Type

Revisiting Nick Carr, whose infamous "IT Doesn't Matter" article caused a huge fuss when CIO covered it back in 2003

It seems strange that the title of a magazine article - even more than the article itself - could cause such a fuss. But that is certainly what Nick Carr's infamous "IT Doesn't Matter" article did back in 2003. And while a lot of the argument did not get past the inflammatory headline, for a while there the air was full of invective, outrage and even a modicum of support.

Shortly after the article appeared in the Harvard Business Review in May 2003, the editor of CIO magazine asked me to write an article on this American fellow who was raising a riot in US IT circles - at the vendor, user and analyst level. The argument had not resonated heavily on Australian shores at this stage, but the fur was certainly flying in the US. The brief was to look at the original arguments, review the responses and assess the damage done - however slight, however fleeting. The impression was that this was an interesting phenomenon but definitely a nine-day wonder.

Looking at the varied stances proved pretty straightforward, as everything was on the Net, so I spent some time searching and reading a rapidly-growing file of claims, counterclaims and commentaries across online magazines, news reports and chat rooms. Some of the comments at the time were extremely vituperative, not least an editorial in this magazine that appeared before my eventual article came out, which referred to "so-called pundits" and ended with a very unladylike "Yer wrong, arsehole".

Nick Carr himself said he enjoyed this particular column: "After so much hot air it was refreshingly blunt and funny".

Editorials aside, what became obvious pretty quickly was that few of the outraged commentators seemed to have actually read the article. Which was a pity, as it was only eight pages long and not particularly academic in style.

But why let a little research get in the way of a good spat.

Many people obviously interpreted the article to mean that IT was not important, a point that Carr had refuted in the first 20 lines of his article. What he was saying was that, through increasing commoditization of software, IT was no longer offering any long-term differentiation and thus no competitive advantage to individual organizations: virtually as soon as you implemented something particularly clever, your competitors were doing it too. This was a phenomenon that had occurred in other, earlier industries, and it was happening in IT now.

A lot of people agreed with Carr, particularly from the IT practitioner side, who largely commented that software was becoming commoditized, even if they did not always agree with the "lack of competitive advantage" part.

However, a lot of other people did not agree at all. In fact, they saw red.

Steve Ballmer called the article "hogwash". Bill Gates objected to it "very strenuously". Carly Fiorina, then CEO of Hewlett-Packard, said Carr was "dead wrong". Some respondents strongly against Carr flatly contradicted views they had expressed just a short time before Carr's article that seemed to support it. Some comments were downright silly, like Computerworld in the US, which reported: "You get real business advantages with technology. You just don't get it from products, services and information." Some vendors took the opportunity to bash each other, along the lines of: "Our products add competitive advantage, their's are just a load of rubbish".

And, of course, conspiracy theories abounded. One suggested the article was a plot by bosses to keep IT wages down (some minds work in very mysterious ways) and another by an industry analyst who said it was a scheme to dramatically launch Carr into the HBR's editor's seat (it wasn't, he didn't). The fact that a lot of these theories came from the fraternity of IT vendors and IT industry analysts, all of whom had a particular axe to grind and product to sell, meant that there was the distinct smell of self-protection in the air.

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