IT does matter after all

Does IT matter any more? That was the question that Nicholas Carr, an editor of the Harvard Business Review, discussed and answered in the negative back in the May issue of the magazine. He seems to have achieved a certain notoriety as a result.

In our July 2003 issue, we at Information Age disagreed fairly strongly with most of his conclusions. We are clearly in good company.

As well as being attacked by Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Craig Barrett (Intel), the HBR has been inundated with letters from top thinkers and strategists critical of Carr’s argument that IT is no longer a strategic issue, and is merely a ‘boring’ operational matter.

John Hagel and John Seely Brown (the former chief scientists at Xerox Parc) describe the article as “potentially dangerous, for it appears to endorse the idea that businesses should manage IT as a commodity”. Warren McFarlan and Richard Nolan, two professors at Harvard Business School, say “couple what you don’t know with fuzzy logic and you have the making of Nicholas Carr’s article”.

Paul Strassmann, executive adviser to NASA and former CIO of the US Department of Defense (and a speaker at Information Age conferences) provides a damning and detailed critique. He says Carr’s advice to back off from information technologies just as they emerge from a long gestation period is “mis-timed and abortive”. Strassmann – perhaps best known for his advice to businesses to better control their IT spend – actually advises that “companies should be ready to engage in yet another investment cycle”.

Others who criticised Carr include three Gartner vice presidents, several CIOs, CEOs, CTOs and professors of information science.

Carr, for his part, is largely unrepentant and claims credit for having brought the issue to the attention of business leaders. He says he finds nothing in these critiques that contradicts his main argument.

But some cynics see a bit of self-promotion at work, pointing to Carr’s plans to release a book next year. Business book sales have fallen by 30% from their late-1990s peak, say US publishers, coinciding with a steep decline in management consulting revenues.

Carr seems determined to kick-start both markets with a single stroke.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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