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Nick Carr's 'IT Doesn't Matter' still matters

Ann Bednarz | May 15, 2013
Nick Carr's article "IT Doesn't Matter" was published in in Harvard Business Review in May 2003 and ignited an industry firestorm for its perceived dismissal of the strategic value of IT.

Ten years ago, Nick Carr said IT doesn't matter -- sort of.

The jarring headline of Carr's May 2003 article, "IT Doesn't Matter," is what many people remember, and it tends to overshadow his more thought-provoking thesis: that companies have overestimated the strategic value of IT, which is becoming ubiquitous and therefore diminishing as a source of competitive differentiation.

"The opportunities for gaining IT-based advantages are already dwindling," Carr wrote in the Harvard Business Review article. "Best practices are now quickly built into software or otherwise replicated. And as for IT-spurred industry transformations, most of the ones that are going to happen have likely already happened or are in the process of happening."

Carr advocated spending less on IT, both to reduce costs and to decrease the risk of buying soon-to-be obsolete equipment and applications. He also predicted the rise of utility-like computing: "The arrival of the Internet has accelerated the commoditization of IT by providing a perfect delivery channel for generic applications. More and more, companies will fulfill their IT requirements simply by purchasing fee-based 'Web services' from third parties -- similar to the way they currently buy electric power or telecommunications services."

The article ignited an industry firestorm. It wasn't shared on Facebook, it didn't trend on Twitter and it wasn't voted up on Reddit -- none of those sites existed at the time. The article went viral the old school way: It was passed around the office, written about by other publications and discussed on IT news forums such as Slashdot.

Carr spoke with Network World this month about his inspiration for the article, the backlash, and the article's unexpected longevity. 

"I knew I was writing something that was provocative and that went against the grain of a lot of the rhetoric that was out there about information technology and business. But the reaction went way beyond what I expected," Carr says.

His editor agrees. "He, I, and we (all of us at HBR) knew that it would be controversial," said Tom Stewart, former editor of Harvard Business Review, in an email to Network World. "We also suspected that it might be misinterpreted as being a Luddite's argument for typewriters rather than a nuanced argument that IT was strategically important not for itself but for what it enabled one to do, just as (using the analogy Nick used) electricity was more important for what people did with it than for the fact that it spawned a utilities industry."

"Our suspicion proved well-grounded: Nick was attacked as much for what he did not say as for what he said -- maybe more," said Stewart, who today is chief marketing and knowledge officer at Booz & Company.


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