The debate over if IT matters continues

A forwarded message from Ken McGuffin of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of management:

“You are invited to attend a breakfast debate at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management on November 1st featuring Nicholas Carr and Don Tapscott. In 2003 Harvard Business Review published an article titled ‘Information Technology (“IT”) Doesn’t Matter’ by one of its former editors, Nicholas Carr. The article provoked a powerful response, triggering a heated debate over the role of IT in business. In turn Carr wrote a bestselling book based on the article with this provocative subtitle: ‘IT and the Corrosion of Competitive Advantage.’

”Carr has agreed to a debate on the topic with Rotman Adjunct Professor Don Tapscott, who is also President, New Paradigm Learning Corp. Expect a lively and interactive discussion about IT’s value to business.”

This, my friends, is getting a little old.

It leaves one breathless: Carr “has agreed to a debate” with Tapscott. It’s groundbreaking! It’s unpredictable! It’s only been done, at a guess, a dozen times before!

The guess is Tapscott’s, not mine, delivered in a keynote at SIMposium Executive Summit 2005 in Boston last month.

“Tapscott’s point: that IT is different from ‘boxes and wires.’ It’s all about information, and that never gets old,” notes Randy Cronk’s Blog. “No, but this debate does.”

How old? I covered this debate four months ago – hosted by SAS and Intel and billed without a trace of irony as the Rumble in the IT Jungle. A little secret to share with you: My reputation in the office is as being, well, a little slow off the mark. I’ve stopped trying to give breaking news tips to the online crew; I’m tired of the withering yes-we’ve-already-filed-that-story glares. My office is reputedly on Newfoundland time – half an hour later, as CBC Radio likes to say.

And it wasn’t even news to ME.

At that session, Carr was already inured to the one-sided vilification of the tech-heavy audience, and Tapscott already reminiscing about the other venues in which they’d duked it out. There must have some rematches over the summer – by Tapscott’s count at the June event, they’d only been at it four or five times. By now, the boys must be positively punch-drunk when it comes to the subject matter.

This is not to say there’s nothing of value to be learned. These are two impressive intellects, each with a steel-trap grasp of the subject and the rhetorical tools to defend and attack with aplomb. If you haven’t heard it before, by all means, take the opportunity.

But I can’t help but think that by now, each could argue the other’s point of view as persuasively. Which would be interesting to see. Something like that movie Face/Off, except that a) Tapscott and Carr look absolutely nothing like John Travolta and Nicholas Cage, and 2) I haven’t actually seen the movie, and I’m relying on editor Shane Schick’s assurance that, yeah, it’s a really appropriate analogy.

In summary: Of course, IT matters, Carr’s willfully misinterpreted body of work notwithstanding. The two often make similar points about uncontrolled IT spending from diametrically opposite perspectives: Carr’s that data is the perfect commodity, infinitely and cheaply replicable; Tapscott’s that it is exactly the opposite, that a bit can be a baby picture or a billion-dollar bank transaction.

Instead of flogging this particular dead polemical horse, I’d like to see Tapscott and Carr turn their considerable intellectual gunpower on subject matter less traveled. Any ideas?

Dave Webb wonders why all of his spam is suddenly in Russian.

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Dave Webb
Dave Webb
A journalist of 20 years experience in newspapers and magazines. He has followed technology exclusively since 1998 and was the winner of the Andersen Consulting Award for Excellence in Business Journalism in the eEconomy category in 2000. (The category was eliminated in 2001, leaving Webb as the only winner ever.) He has held senior editorial positions with publications including Computing Canada, eBusiness Journal, InfoSystems Executive, Canadian Smart Living and Network World. He is currently the editor of ComputerWorld Canada and the IT World Canada newswire.
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