Podcast: Is Carr right? Does IT not matter? Gartner attendees respond

Podcast: Is Carr right? Does IT not matter? Gartner attendees respond

Summary: For those of you who haven't heard of Nicholas Carr, he's the guy who, back in 2003 (gosh, has it been that long?) published an essay in Harvard Business Review with the title IT Doesn't Matter.

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TOPICS: United Kingdom
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For those of you who haven't heard of Nicholas Carr, he's the guy who, back in 2003 (gosh, has it been that long?) published an essay in Harvard Business Review with the title IT Doesn't Matter. There are only a handful of people under a handful of brands that could publish an article of that nature and get the attention that his article got. Carr is one of those people and Havard is one of those brands. A lot of people, particularly those in IT circles, were offended by Carr's insinuation that IT couldn't drive competitive advantage. As we say in the news business, it's one of those stories that just keeps on giving. And so does Carr. Last week, Carr was apparently in London reiterating how IT does not matter.  Reported Will Sturgeon from Silicon.com (a sister organization to ZDNet under the CNET Networks umbrella):

Nicholas Carr, a perennial thorn in the side of the IT industry and author of the 2003 Harvard Business Review article "IT doesn't matter," looks set on stirring fresh controversy in the industry, telling companies to stop spending on technology....Last week, Carr told an audience in London that companies have been misled to believe buying technology can make them more productive....He said: "Smaller firms are more productive than large firms and yet they have less technology." And though he conceded it would be naïve to assume that represents the grounds for a hard and fast rule, he added it should at least "lead anybody to question the importance of IT."....He added: "The vast majority of companies should be IT followers not IT leaders. The innovator is going to pay a lot more than those who follow in the innovator's wake."

So, since I was in the proverbial lion's den of IT professionals this week (Gartner's Symposium/ITxpo), I thought I'd sieze the opportunity to run what Carr has been saying by a few CIO types and catch what they had to say on tape.  And that's exactly what I did. For about an hour yesterday morning, I stood around the most highly trafficked area at the Dolphin Hotel in Lake Buena Vista, Florida (the main site of the Gartner event) and stopped a bunch of attendees as they attempted to run away from me with my microphone in plain sight. For those that agreed to stop, I read some excerpts from Sturgeon's article and asked them to respond. 

I managed to catch some incredibly insightful responses on tape. Others were inciteful (sic). Bob (the first interviewee) found Carr's opinion to be foolish. Ron, who never heard of Carr, said "the man that is prophesizing that is absolutely stupid." But some IT professionals agreed with Carr. Clarence for example compared early technology adopters to the famous explorers Lewis & Clark. In other words, trying to use new technology to generate competitive advantage is risky and, at best, is for relatively few companies. Let Lewis & Clark pave the way (so to say) and then follow in their path. Since first starting the IT Matters series of podcasts almost two years ago, this is probably one of my favorite shows because of how many people I interviewed and how many points of view they brought to the table. One interviewee -- Susan -- told me of how IT most definitely matters, but in a way that's probably consistent with Carr's thinking. Another positioned IT as a basic utility that all businesses need, like water and electricity (again, consistent with Carr's thinking if you ask me). 

You can stream the podcast audio to your desktop or notebook or manually download the MP3 to your system by using the embedded player above. Or, if you're subscribed to ZDNet's IT Matters series of podcasts, it should appear on your system and/or portable audio player automatically.

Topic: United Kingdom

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29 comments
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  • Thorn in the side?

    My inclination is to say "Heh!" and go on with my job.
    spamagnet
  • How much do you want to bleed

    Overall, a company has to determine if they want to be on the Bleeding edge of technology or the Leading edge. To be onthe Bleeding edge requires a lot of extra resources such as larger than normal test networks, higher skilled gurus and more support personnel to deal with all of the strange problems that can take place.

    Overall, it depends on your perspective. If the new technology is sound enough and you have a well trained staff to deal with it then it can make a bit of a difference. However, most companies are not willing to hire the 50+ year old tech or analyst that has the vast experience and knows how to deal with strange problems that know one has seen before. Instead, they typically hire the 20 something types for a lot less money that always seem to slam their heads into a brick wall while pressing the Kill switch when trouble jumps up and bites them.
    gjsterner@...
  • Hmmm.. From what I've read...

    From what I've read about the man, and what I know about the school, my only opinion of him is;

    Sour Grapes.

    Cheers;
    Jeff
    jskline0@...
  • IT like cars

    There have been many analogies between IT and autos. Now adays, the type of car you have does
    not give a real advantage to a company, but woe to those who try to use horse and buggy instead.
    IT is still in the early 1900 mode. Some can
    still run a business on foot, or without an auto.
    Those with autos do more business, but suffer from the growing pains of an industry.
    Carr's words can be applied to ALL R&D.
    So why should anybody do any real R&D?
    M$ gets it best ideas by buying small companies.
    Do you want your company to be a LEADER?
    Do you want to be a follower, falling further
    and further behind?
    SirLanse
  • IT doen't matter ??

    I agree with the premise that IT is a business commodity, but what the past has shown us is that while IT innovation is risky, perilous and costly, the payoff when it works can be exponential in term of monetary return.

    YouTube.com is just the current poster child for this risk/reward Paradigm.
    lpl@...
  • Not everyone should be a pioneer.

    Yes, the 'pioneers' are the ones with the arrows in the backs. So?

    Not every company can, or should, be an IT leader but that's not the same thing as saying 'IT doesn't matter'.

    Small firms may be more efficient without IT than they are with IT because the technology is beyond what they need to run their business. Similarly, very large firms can get bogged down in the sheer complexity of their infrastructure but that is an organizational matter -- not an IT matter.

    Anyone on the 'bleeding edge' incurs greater costs than those that follow them and whether those greater costs pay off in competitive advantage is hard to measure. For most, they probably don't, but for some, their leadership offers a clear competitive advantage.

    (Microsoft gets all the attention but IBM is still the largest IT company in the world!)

    Those with the resources to do so need to be IT leaders or progress won't be made. To make progress in any endeavor, one must take risks.

    This is just another example of shallow people being overly impressed with anyone associated with an institution instead of examining what they have to say.

    Consider this... Both of our last two Presidents attended Yale. Does that fact have anything to do with their relative suitability as President?

    Of course not, and neither does Carr's association with Harvard make him any more competent to speak about IT than anyone else in the industry.

    (Those who can, do -- those who can't ... well, you get the idea!)
    M Wagner
  • ramnet

    In a lot of ways Carr is right on the money. Business has a love affair with technology because it often allows senior execs to hide behind non performance in other areas of the business and to pretend that by spending on computing they are moving forward in the best direction. This view is not by default correct. A lot of big business overlook small things that could save them big $ and they invent more process which of course justifies a bigger IT spend. The real question is why do we need all this process and red tape for computers to trawl through. Someone is NOT asking the harder and more difficult questions. Many IT professional protect their own jobs this way sadly .
    ramnet@...
    • But that is not IT leadership ...

      Sure, there have always been companies (like people) who cling to this or that as a panacea. That is not leadership. Being a leader is about understanding your business and taking risks so that business may make greater strides than the competition. Throwing dollars (or IT technology) at a problem instead of trying to understand it is useless.
      M Wagner
    • Very True. Many IT professional protect their own jobs this way sadly.

      I've been an IT professional for more years than I'd care to remember and it pains me to have written elsewhere my main post to this column.

      When I look back at my other profession, electronics, which has run in parallel with IT, it's chalk and cheese: the electrical engineering side wins hands down for the expended effort and the effective return on this effort.

      On the other hand, IT never fully works properly--there's always bugs and gotchas, it's never ever fully finished, jobs blend into each other and the amount of time spent rectifying problems is only limited by the fact that time is pretty inextensible--there's only 24 hours in a day. Moreover, the moment you've finished a job you've got to restart on it all over again, as some new idea or whim requires the software to be rewritten or grossly modified. The Law of Diminishing Returns is alive, well and extremely virulent in the IT profession.

      Many IT people will probably disagree with this assessment of mine. However, my retort back is to ask them whether they've ever truly worked at another profession at the same level of expertise as they have in IT. Those that answer in the negative will be the ones most likely to disagree with me as they've no comparative reference.
      Irritated_User
  • Carr for President (lmao)

    Let's see, he obviously does not have a clue, and he's a Harvard grad. Doesn't that sound like our own King George, who also believes that IT doesn't matter enough to even worry about losing all our IT jobs to competing nations? I say we push to get Nicholas Carr on the ballot for 2008, that way we can replace our current narrow minded twit with a new one. Carr and Cheney in 2008 - the clueless and the devil - now there's a great ticket!
    jonnjonnzdnet
    • Or maybe...

      Perhaps Carr is a Dem. In which case he'd be way too qualified, because as we all know the Dems (Gore in particular) invented the internet... obviously they have a clue?

      sheesh, some people are just totally braindead when it comes to mixing politics and living. sigh.
      shraven
  • Its always about the toolbox

    Small businesses use IT like a carpenter would your basic hammer & saw. You can get a tremendous amount done with just a very basic small toolset. Outsourcing kills IT because it means the businesses never own their own critical tools! Large business also doesn't spend wisely on their tools. You see enourmous budgets for the glitz and hype of chrome hammers and leather grip saws instead of the power drill which would have really helped do the job.
    sjbjava
  • It's a matter or perception.

    No doubt the staunch IT guru's of the world would see this as an afront to IT itself, and if the headline of this story were true, I would be afronted too. The point is true, spending on technology 'can' be overbearing but there are many variables in that soup too. Who ultimately makes the decisions? Who controls the purse strings? Are they the same person? This gap alone can be a big factor in technology decisions.
    If you report to a CFO you will have to fight harder for your money and will get more push back. If you report to a "C" level with business process control the outlook can be different.
    It is down to us, the IT leaders of our companies, to be frugal enough to satisfy both, and keep in line with the technology necessary to increase the bottom line. We don't have to be cutting edge with technology to beat the competition, we have to be efficient and effective, make the most of the technology we have. You might not be using it to it's full capacity. Creative thinking in our field is a must.
    Be tight with the purse strings and make those decisions wisely and you not only maintain the respect and the ear of the executive team, but you will get more 'ear' when you need it which leads to technology when you need it.
    My 'two cents' worth.
    Steve Shead
  • Does IT not matter?

    IT: Carr doesn't matter!
    BPCSCA
  • Carr irrelevant

    If a company needs someone like Carr to tell them whether IT is productive for their company or not, then they should probably not have IT...whether it IS productive or not.

    When the dust settles Carr will admit that all he's saying is the obvious: that some companies spend more on IT than they should. He's only making headlines because there are too many IT journalists with not enough imagination to create real news.
    Langalibalene
  • Nicholas Carr Doesn't Matter

    Sheesh! Some guys will say anything to attract attention!
    pragmatech
  • Well, that's one dead straw man, for sure

    Based on the article, it would appear that Carr's speciality is creating bogus "straw man" arguments, knocking them down, and then telling everybody what a clever fellow he is.

    I doubt that very many companies have actually been led to believe that "buying technology can make them more productive" absent a clear business need for that technoloy.

    Yes, buying a technology product just because it's the latest or most hyped is stupid, but how often does that actually happen? In larger firms in particular, the reality is more the opposite: the IT folks have to make a very good business case for what they want to buy or the CFO and (if s/he's doing his/her job properly) neither will the CIO.

    Carr is clearly a good salesman - look how successful he's been at promoting himself - but I have to see him say anything that isn't either grossly oversimplified ("stop buying technology") or crashingly obvious ("The innovator is going to pay a lot more than those who follow in the innovator's wake" - well, DUH!).

    Technology news vendors, ZDNet included, aren't helping any by encouraging this kind of hucksterism.
    the_doge
  • Another car ana......

    I fall somewhere in the middle. Being responsible for the IT in this company I have always contended never to be cutting edge. To always follow but not too far behind. I'd say we are two years behind the leading edge. I can use the new design of the 63 corvette as an example. Buy one of those and you were in for a wild ride of problems although it is today an expensive piece of history. But buy the 65 Corvette and your machine was sweet and refined. We always buy tried and true technology. Makes for little problems and a much smoother ride.
    TitusHooker
  • IT - it's a tool and by itself cannot be relevant anyway...

    Like a tool in someone's "golf bag," IT matters if you are skilled in wielding it, know when to use it and use it with skill.

    This overall discussion raised by Carr is not relevant since we are discussing the relevance of a "hammer" when the relevance comes from knowing when and how to apply the "hammer."

    I would presume his name and brand association might provide him the right to make the relationship, but I don't see it and I think it might even hint at a lack of both an understanding of and skill with using the "tool" called IT.

    I could argue that money is not relevant since it is the understanding of and the use and the skill at using money that can be relevant to differentiation.

    So would Carr agree that money is therefore also not relvant?

    I would be curious...?
    Gray_Beard
    • Your'e right about the hammer. But....

      Your'e right about the hammer. But....

      A hammer in the hands of a five-year old is a blunt, dangerous and very destructive weapon. The same hammer in the hands of an experienced carpenter or cabinetmaker can produce exquisite furniture which will last for centuries.

      Carr is only restating the strong evidence that been around since even before Lester Thurow, MIT Professor of Economics and Management, dropped his IT productivity bombshell of the early 1990s. Thurow produced economic evidence that showed conclusively that the many trillions of dollars which had been spent by business over the 1980s decade had resulted in both net productivity losses and staff increases.

      Don't let your prejudices and PC addiction get in the way of the facts. And don't just take my word for it, research the cold hard statistics for yourself. You'll find they're so embarrassing, that it's little wonder that no one in IT or big business wants to talk about it. It?s like discussing in public that you?ve a relative in the slammer, all discussion is better swept under the carpet.

      Yes, the hammer is a good analogy. A proper evaluation of the evidence clearly shows that the unfretted and indiscriminate use of PCs over since the introduction of the IBM PC in 1980 is akin to a five-year old wielding a hammer to everything within reach. The youngster thoroughly enjoys wielding his hammer but the outcome isn't very productive by any measure.

      I hope that, as with the five-year old, we'll eventually grow up into responsible experienced professionals, it is only then we'll be able to use the IT hammer with any skill or precision.
      Irritated_User