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Fightin' Words

Fightin' Words

Nicholas Carr's provocative essay

IT Doesn't Matter ignited a war of words between IT professionals and their business colleagues, but amid the slanging match serious questions are being raised about IT's ability to deliver competitive advantage.

There's been a battle royal waging in recent months in the press both here and overseas, at conferences, over boardroom tables and wherever two or more are gathered in the name of IT.

While ostensibly over an eight-page article, written by Nicholas Carr and provocatively titled "IT Doesn't Matter", that appeared in the Harvard Business Review in May of this year, the arguments say as much about the protagonists themselves, their prejudices and fears, as they do about the intrinsic value of IT. It is also indicative of a major split between IT professionals and their non-IT colleagues, in particular between IT management, non-IT executives, and the CIO who must stride the widening space between.

On the supporting side, John Brown, former chief scientist at Xerox Palo Alto, and management consultant John Hagel III, called the article "an important, perhaps even seminal, piece. It effectively captures the zeitgeist among senior managers of large enterprises".

In a mixed response, Bruce Skaistis, president of eGlobal CIO, says: "Carr has put a stake in the heart of the misdirected thinking about IT that flourished in the free-spending 1990s. It's time for enterprises to be realistic about IT's role in their future."

On the negative side, two professors of business administration at Harvard Business School pilloried the piece: "Couple not knowing that you don't know with fuzzy logic, and you have the makings of Nicholas Carr's article." In "Stupid-journal alert", Fortune.com writer David Kirkpatrick calls the article "a sloppy mix of ersatz history, conventional wisdom, moderate insight and unsupportable assertion. And it's dangerously wrong." Bill Gates, speaking at Microsoft's CEO Summit in late May, said: "We'd object very strenuously" to some of the suggested assertions of the article. (Carr says Gates has misinterpreted them.)

And Carr seems especially amused at one writer on a ZDNet thread who claims: "In all likelihood, it's a group of rich individuals with similar interests in keeping IT wages down that not only had a hand in the HBR article in the first place, but also a hand in making sure references to it appeared in the New York Times." (On that particular conspiracy theory, Carr says his lips are sealed.)

What's It All About, Nicholas?

A lot of the negative discussion on Carr's HBR article argument was probably instigated as much by the bold headline - "IT Doesn't Matter" - as by the crux of his argument. Many people, including many in the media, interpreted his article as saying that IT is no longer a worthy business tool.

This is wrong. Carr states clearly, in the very first paragraph of his article: "Today, no one would dispute that information technology has become the backbone of commerce. It underpins the operations of individual companies, ties together far-flung supply chains and, increasingly, links businesses to the customers they serve. Hardly a dollar or a euro changes hands any more without the aid of computer systems."

These are lines 10-19 of his published eight-page article. So the number of people arguing that Carr is suggesting that "IT is dead" makes one wonder if any of them have actually read beyond the headline. The argument that Carr is really making is that, considering the increasing commoditisation of IT hardware and software, there is little differentiation to be offered by individual organisations' IT investments.

As he says in his later (June 03) response to comments on his article: "As IT's core functions - data processing, storage and transmission - have become cheaper, more standardised and more easily replicable, their ability to serve as the basis for competitive advantage has steadily eroded. Given this continuing and indeed inexorable trend, companies would be wise to manage IT as a commodity input, seeking to achieve competitively necessary levels of IT capability at the lowest possible cost and risk."

Later in his response, he adds: "The more tightly an advantage is tied to the technology, the more transient it will be."

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