It certainly struck a nerve. The recent essay “IT Doesn’t Matter,” written by Nicholas Carr for Harvard Business Review, prompted the expected cacophony of rebuttals from the usual suspects. To recap, the HBR piece equated IT with historical industrial revolution innovations including railroads and electricity. The premise was that innovations experienced common lifecycles that (1) revolutionize commerce, (2) become essential, and (3) wind up as universal commodities.
For the record, we agree with one aspect of the HBR analysis: that baseline front office, back office, and web-enabled applications have become part of the price of competition. Beyond that, we believe the HBR piece missed a crucial point: unlike electricity or railroads, IT systems can embed the intellectual property (IP) that differentiates how enterprises compete. And we don’t think that IP has become commodity — unless that’s another deception of The Matrix.
OK, now that we’ve gotten that off our chest, we’ll ask the more pressing question: why has the HBR piece knocked everyone for a loop? (1) It’s the economy stupid, and more importantly, (2) the IT community is atoning for past sins.
We’ll focus on the latter. Recall the run up to Year 2000, when the rush to finish Y2K repairs coincided with the emergence of the Internet and a hyperactive economy? There was a lot of silly money in IT driving many organizations to be first — too often at all costs. But that was just temporary insanity.
Of greater concern is the cost-plus mentality that has always plagued enterprise- scale IT projects, even before the Internet. Recall those SAP or CASE projects where consulting costs outpaced software, sometimes by ratios up to 10:1? No wonder enterprise IT projects were often equated to DOD $500 toilet seat procurements. No wonder the HBR piece drew far more attention than it deserved.
Have we learned our lessons? We’re worried about the inflated expectations accompanying the emergence of web services. Yes, a critical mass of vendors may eventually agree on a core set of standards that might transform applications into interchangeable services, but if anybody ever thinks that will finally make systems integration easy, there will be another HBR article coming.