Does IT still matter?

In 2003, Harvard Business Review published an article entitled IT Doesn’t Matter by one of its former editors, Nicholas G. Carr.

It provoked a heated debate over the role of information technology in business. A book was published a year later, and Carr continues to make numerous appearances and is often seen debating the topic. He recently spoke to CDN about this and the next big thing in IT.

CDN: Did you ever think that the Does IT Matter debate would rage on for this long?

Nicholas Carr: I knew that what I was writing was controversial, and I thought it would stir up a little conversation for a couple of weeks, but there is no way I would have predicted three years later that we would still be talking about it.

CDN: Some of the debate seems to have come out of a fundamental misunderstanding of your originalpremise. Some people seem to think you were saying IT is irrelevant.

N.C.: There is still some of that but that was particularly true of the first wave of responses when people were responding to the title without having necessarily read the piece. I’m saying IT is essential but has lost most of its power to give a company strategic advantage over its rivals.

CDN: But there is still a lot of talk about competitive advantage and IT. Is it the wrong question to ask just now or did it lose its relevance over time?

N.C.: I would say both. The IT industry, or the vendor side, has really always used as part of its marketing pitch a suggestion that IT was central to strategy and a way to get an advantage. And you can understand why. By getting across that message, you are telling people to buy your latest products or they are going to fall behind and get creamed competitively. It is a compelling marketing message but essentially that is all it is, a marketing message.

CDN: For CIOs though, who are asked to think in terms of competitive advantage and business strategy, where does this leave them? Do CIOs matter?

N.C.: Obviously, it depends on how you define the CIO role. The CIO role varies from company to company and it is has been changing over time. But I would argue that the classic, traditional CIO as the person who oversees a company’s information technology and its deployment, that role is becoming less important, and over the long term, it will disappear. Now having said that, we are seeing some CIOs move out of the technology world into more of a consulting role in helping businesses figure out what information they need, when they need it and how to best get that information. That role will remain and grow more important.

CDN: But if I’m a CEO, and I am staffing my senior executive team, do I need that? Do I need a business strategist, or should I not already be getting that from my finance person, my sales/marketing person and my manufacturing person?

N.C.: If we are talking about the future when the technological role has faded away, I think in a lot of companies, they won’t need the information specialist. That role will just merge into traditional business functions such as the CFO, or marketing or business unit managers. But when you look at large companies with many different businesses, they often they don’t have anyone who can see, or look at the information requirements of all the businesses. And if you don’t have somebody doing that, the danger is that every individual business will manage information from its own narrow perspective. You will lose a lot of the potential for commonality of needs across the company.

CDN: Beyond Does IT Matter, what is the next big question that an organization should be asking?

N.C.: The next big question is what IT assets do we have to own and what can we just replace by renting the capabilities over the Internet?

The fundamental shift of building it yourself, to maintaining it yourself, to the shared utility model, in the years ahead a lot of companies will have a lot of opportunities. We don’t need to own this server, this data center or these applications — we can free up a lot of capital by renting these services over the Internet.

I think that is the next big transformation that CIOs and CEOs will struggle with.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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