Business & Finance
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3/4/2003
02:07 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
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Business Technology: IT Doesn't Matter?

Whichever ancient sage who first divined that the gods do not always smile upon us surely knew of which he spoketh. I need to cut my shaggy grass, but it keeps raining; my beloved but bungling Pittsburgh Pirates have lost six in a row; the drain trap below my shower is leaking; and on top of all that comes word that the Harvard Business Review has decided that IT doesn't matter.

Yep, that's what they say in the table of contents, in the headline, and at the top of each page in the lengthy article: "IT Doesn't Matter" (HBR, May 2003, p. 41). And here I was, fussing about leaks and losing streaks when IT was just stopping mattering. Can it be so?

OTHER VOICES
Those who died to liberate our country are heroes in their own lands. For us they will be martyrs and heroes. They have gained an eternal place in our hearts, one that is forever reserved for those who gave their lives in more than three decades of struggle against the Baathist regime.

-- --Awad Nasir, Iraqi citizen, The Wall Street Journal, May 8


The article is thoughtful and sweeping and quite interesting to read. I'd heartily recommend it. But that doesn't make it either accurate in its conclusions or even properly focused, and that's the problem I have with it. Written by HBR editor-at-large Nicholas Carr, the article is intent on proving the thesis that because IT has become widespread, then it must perforce become a commodity, as happened to other one-time breakthrough and industry-jarring innovations, such as steam engines and railroads, telephones and telegraphs, electric generators and internal-combustion engines. And Carr's unshakable belief in that inevitability leads him to a conclusion that's no doubt provocative, which I think was his primary intent, but also profoundly shortsighted and dangerous.

Now, please allow me a brief digression to the Full Disclosure Department: I will certainly admit that given my position with a publication like InformationWeek, I have a vested interest in the ongoing relevance, growth, and vitality of what I believe Carr is referring to as the IT industry. And I can certainly say that my view of the future that lies ahead for you readers could not possibly be in more extreme opposition to what Carr forecasts in the final paragraph of his article: "IT management should, frankly, become boring. The key to success, for the vast majority of companies, is no longer to seek advantage aggressively but to manage costs and risks meticulously." So, yes, I am a bit subjective on this topic, but I also feel that while the jobs of Randy Mott and Ralph Szygenda and Rob Carter and many tens of thousands of others in top IT management positions will be many things, one thing they will must assuredly not be is boring.

Where the article should have gone, I think, is outside the realm of embedded infrastructure and applications and into some attempts to look at what the future might look like. Instead, it assumes that the futures that befell railroads and steam engines will, inexorably and inevitably, be the future of IT. And I think that's astonishingly shortsighted. Only 10 years ago, how many of you had heard of the World Wide Web? And today, we've all heard of Web services--heard too much and seen too little, some would say--but can any of us really imagine what business will be like when the potential of those new technologies begins to be expressed? Or when global and mobile get more stable, and true collaboration becomes less psychology and more process and software, and the recent focus on internal technology becomes redirected on customer-centered possibilities? If we've learned anything in the last several years, it's that the balance of power in the world of business has tipped to the buyer and they will continue to get more demanding, more fickle, more selective, and more willing to spend their bucks elsewhere unless businesses mold their efforts around those customers.

Will that be done with people? With paper? With singing telegrams? I don't think so; the key will continue to be technology.

IT doesn't matter. Or does it?

Bob Evans
Editor in Chief
bevans@cmp.com

Tom Huber, CEO of Collegis, took issue with my May 5 column about two IT workers who found child porn on a New York Law School professor's computer. His response can be found at: informationweek.com/938/collegis.htm.


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Bob Evans's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Bob Evans, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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