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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.

IT suppliers were the most upset, Carr recalls, since he essentially was telling corporate leaders to ignore vendor hype and to stop overspending on IT.

"The biggest backlash came from IT companies. Steve Ballmer called it hogwash, Carly Fiorina dissed it. All the vendors were really up in arms," Carr says.

In the trenches, CIOs and IT executives had more mixed reactions. "Some of them really took offense at the article, but others said, 'Yeah, I can see a lot of sense here. This is kind of where we're heading, this is what I'm trying to do,'" Carr says.

Andi Mann, a former industry analyst and longtime enterprise technologist, saw that dichotomy among the IT executives he worked with. Some IT pros, threatened by the thought of losing control, wanted to prove Carr wrong to their CEOs and maintain the status quo. Others saw Carr's essay as a wake-up call.

"One group was trying to maintain their legacy and trying to stop the momentum of change, of innovation, of enabling rather than controlling the business," Mann says. "The other group was saying to me, 'I think this guy's onto something, and I want to be the innovative CIO, I want to be the CIO who actually uses this technology.' Both groups were interested in trying to prove Nick Carr wrong, but for different reasons and in different ways."

Making a career of it
"IT Doesn't Matter" turned out to be a career-defining missive for Carr, who followed it up with multiple books (including 2004's "Does IT Matter?" and 2008's "The Big Switch") speaking engagements, and another ire-raising essay titled "The End of Corporate Computing."

Looking back on the 10-year-old HBR essay, Carr says he got some parts right and some parts wrong.

"Back then, IT companies tried to sell the latest server model as the key to strategic advantage -- you need to be on the cutting-edge of infrastructure or your business is going to be overwhelmed by competitors. At that level, the idea that the basic technology was going to be neutralized as a competitive differentiator has basically panned out," Carr says.

On the other hand, IT pros have new challenges to address, such as cloud strategy, mobility and social media. "From another point of view, I think I probably understated the new things that IT departments would have to grapple with. I don't think I expressed the full range of what was to come," he says.

Industry watchers agree -- to varying degrees.

"He didn't look into the future. He looked at the present state and saw a lethargic, slow, controlling, almost domineering department of IT," says Mann, who today is vice president of strategic solutions at CA. "He got it right: IT needed to be fundamentally different. But he also got it hideously wrong."

 

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