So, it shouldn't
have come as too much of a surprise to Nicholas Carr when his recent article was
dismissed as "hogwash" by Ballmer and labelled as "insanity"
by another Microsofter.
When nearly anybody
and everybody in the information technology (IT) firmament weighs in - Hewlett-Packard
CEO Carly Fiorina called Carr's views "dead wrong" a couple of weeks
ago - he may have had cause to wonder whether he might be losing his marbles after
all. The only other explanation for such a top-heavy response would have to be
that he had struck a nerve.
What was the cause
of all this invective and outrage? An article written by Carr entitled IT doesn't
matter was published in the Harvard Business Review in May. In it, he dared to
suggest that, because technology is now so pervasive and has reached such a level
of maturity, it is very difficult for a business to gain
"competitive edge" from it. Companies require technology to function,
but they can't rely on it to give them an advantage over competitors because rivals
are likely to have the same systems.
then that Ballmer and others laid into Carr, given that so much of the marketing
message pumped out by the IT businesses they run is precisely that their products
and solutions (a word unique to the IT community) give customers a competitive
advantage in a fast-moving world.
But if you pause
to examine Carr's argument, might you not be forgiven for thinking the IT bigwigs
are protesting just a little too much? The supporters of IT - and those with a
vested interest in maintaining or regaining its phenomenally high industry-growth
rates - like to present it as something different from other
businesses and industries. Things change and evolve much more quickly in the IT
world, they argue (we won't mention the dot-com bubble in this context because
it might cause even the more hardened of them to wince in embarrassment).
Are they right?
Consolidation in the computer industry means that the choice of product open to
businesses seeking to computerise a process is much more limited than it used
to be. In turn, this means they are very likely to buy the same products - more
or less - as their rivals. Which makes it near-impossible for an IT company which
is dominant in a particular product area
to argue that installing its system would give a customer an edge over another
business. But it doesn't stop them from trying.
The people who
seek to elevate the computer industry above the norm might like to ask themselves
why, if IT provides such an advantage, it is possible for businesses to outsource
their IT function? More importantly, how is it so easy for companies to take over
outsourced IT functions for different businesses?
The simple answer is that most IT functions and departments are more or less the
In his article,
Carr also compares IT to electricity. While a necessity, it doesn't bring competitive
advantage because everyone has it (except people in Iraq and on the eastern seaboard
of the US). Grid-computing - a concept under which customers buy computer function
and processing from companies like IBM, in much the same way as they buy electricity
and water from utility companies - only serves to heighten the impression that
IT is fast becoming a uniform utility.
people use similar systems, the way in which they use the business processes provided
by their IT becomes very similar too (the interface between human and computer
and the interface between different computer applications are the same) bringing
an even closer symmetry between companies and dulling the so-called "edge"
they are supposed to provide.
Once that happens,
the argument moves away from what is
essentially a bog-standard functionality towards maintenance, security and people.
For example, company cars perform exactly the same function for all businesses
- getting people from one place to another. Provided they are maintained and have
enough petrol, that's what they'll do.
The same applies
to IT and business processes. It's how you use what technology gives you that
provides you with an edge, not so much what the technology gives you. This is
likely to become increasingly true in the future and brings us back to a truism
of business which so many executives like to spout: "Our people are our business."
To adapt Carr slightly: "IT doesn't matter, but people do."