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Issue Date: February 2008

Why IT still matters

February 2008
Jason Stamper

IT matters more, to more people, than ever.

It has been five years since Nicholas Carr, editor of the Harvard Business Review, wrote a now infamous article, 'IT does not matter'. Most technology vendors and indeed plenty of analysts took umbrage at this assertion, but was Carr right then? And is he still right today?
First we need to establish what Carr actually said. He said that what he calls 'infrastructural technologies' would become ubiquitous in the not-too-distant future. As he puts it, "as their availability increases and their cost decreases - as they become ubiquitous - they become commodity inputs."
But is becoming a commodity the same as no longer mattering, of no longer holding any importance? We believe that Oracle's acquisition of BEA for $8,5bn is just one proof-point for the fact that infrastructural technologies are anything but commodity.
Not only do they still matter, they matter more and more to companies for which integration between data, systems, and applications is the biggest thing holding back many of their strategic projects.
Carr is right that there is constant evolution in all areas of technology, and that technologies that once held competitive advantage become a little less of a differentiator once they are readily and cheaply available to all.
But even with technologies that have become commoditised by virtue of being cheaply and readily available, there is still the question of exactly how those technologies are applied. Even the best tools, if not woven successfully into the fabric of a company's business processes, have the potential to do more harm than good.
For example, a survey a couple of years ago of 600 employees at blue-chip companies in the UK by Priority Management found that 11% of employees consider e-mail to be the cause of most disruption to their working day. But for many other staff, e-mail clearly has the ability to dramatically boost productivity.
The other thing that Carr underestimates is the pace of change in IT. IT is not static. There are constant inventions, improvements, and combinations of existing technologies that once again create the potential to boost competitive advantage. For every technology that Carr would say has become commoditised, another is around the corner that only early adopters will benefit from.
When Carr wrote his paper about infrastructural technologies becoming commoditised, for instance, the Enterprise Service Bus and the SOA Registry/Repository were just emerging. Today they are far more mature and perhaps even to some extent commoditised, yet they still matter to those who have built their SOA infrastructures around them.
As for technology as a whole, we believe it matters more, to more people, than ever.
Consumers at home now care about the ease of use and speed of wireless networks, synchronisation between portable devices and their PCs, and remote access to their corporate systems. Fifteen years ago, the only IT in the home was a PC, and a number of embedded systems in washing machines and video recorders that consumers could not care less about.
In the enterprise, business users' expectations of what IT should do for them are higher than ever, thanks at least in part to their positive experience with consumer technologies that feature in the enterprise too. "Why can I not find documents in my company as fast as I can find them on the Internet with Google?" they may well ask.
IT matters to business people more than ever. Portable e-mail, unified communications, enterprise search, content management, and business intelligence, to name just a few, are all key to making fast, well-informed decisions.
In the developing world the One Laptop Per Child scheme is just one example of the realisation that IT, and connectivity to the Internet, can make a huge difference to children's education. But for adults in these geographies too, IT has the power to deliver their goods and services faster, and further, than ever. To share information and ideas, and to express their very freedom.
IT even still matters in the developed world, where Carr's argument that infrastructural technologies are commodity and no longer matter is easier to defend. When Virgin Media, formed though the merger of Virgin Mobile and NTL Telewest lost 46 000 customers in its first quarter of 2007 despite spending $50m on advertising, it partly blamed poorly integrated billing and customer systems for the problems.
Virgin Media duly invested in some more integration technology - 'infrastructural', as Carr would say, but clearly still mattering an awful lot not only to Virgin Media, but also its competitors to whom those defecting customers had turned.
Getting the technology right may matter more than whether or not it is cheap and available. But either way, we believe IT most definitely still matters. It matters more, to more people, than ever.

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