Wednesday, July 07, 2004

IT Does Matter

Nicholas Carr caused a storm last year when he wrote an article called "IT Doesn't Matter" for the Harvard Business Review. Recently he published a book on the same subject. For the article to generate the response that it did, it has to contain more than a grain of truth. In the long run, he may be right. At some point in the future, for the vast majority of companies, IT will not matter in the same way that accounting does not matter. Accounting is a function that needs to be done, and it needs to be done correctly, but it is not something that can give a company a decisive competitive advantage or a superior business model.

The problem is that we are not yet at the point where IT does not matter. Technology continues to advance, and we are always building new systems to take advantage of the new technology. What's more, it takes time to develop the understanding and standardization of an IT application to the point where it runs smoothly enough to be taken for granted, or outsourced.

I think that it takes a minimum of 25 years to get a application or technology properly under control. For example, payroll was a white hot application in the 60's with companies hiring talented programmers to write their payroll applications. By the 90's, payroll had gotten to the point where it was almost entirely outsourced.

Payroll is a relatively simple application. How long is it going to take to get the PC or the Internet under control to the point where they can be taken for granted? Then there are much more complex applications like ERP or CRM that have been around for a few years but certainly not long enough to be satisfactorily stable. Finally there are still emerging categories such as content management and business process management and new technologies such as RFID and sensor networks.

Unfortunately, Carr's writing distracts us from a much more important and corrosive problem, that of the IT divide. At a recent conference, the IT divide emerged as the dominant topic during the wrap up panel. I will have more to say about it later.

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