Kicking up the debate on the future of IT another notch is Nicholas G. Carr's sure-to-be-controversial contention in this month's Harvard Business Review that the pervasiveness of IT will soon make it strategically irrelevant. Summing up his position is the article's headline: "IT Doesn't Matter."
Bam! Now there's a stance sure to stir up some conversation around the data banks. (An interview with Carr runs in this week's issue.)
On the one hand, the very pervasiveness of IT, coupled with two other trends -- the increasingly technically literate population, and the rising integration of computer technology into everything from cars to clothes dryers to clothing -- severely diminishes the mystique that has always surrounded IT.
The idea is that IT has become as ordinary, albeit as key, as the less glamorous accounting or manufacturing departments. You can't run a company without them, but they're nothing to get excited about. Everyone has these departments, and they pretty much do the same things. Carr reasons, then, that these departments have lost whatever competitive or strategic edge they might have once provided.
And there is some truth to that. For example, right now, we're all using cell phones, desktop PCs and laptops, and a goodly portion of us are using wireless devices. Yes, there will be another wave of technology. There always is. It's like a force of nature that you can't hold back. Carr is right again when he says everyone will eventually line up to use that next advance in technology, creating a level playing field. For him, it's enough that IT filters, adapts and manages these evolutions.
But technology has the potential to succeed in permeating almost every aspect of our lives and the products we use. Some might say that creating all that new stuff won't be IT's job. The R&D, manufacturing and design groups will be responsible for weaving technology advances into consumer goods. The question, then, for IT folks is: What role will we play?
IT has more to offer than mere supervision. It could become a combination of tech adviser and testing lab for many of these products. Or it could morph away from building pure technology systems that run a business and toward building technology into the services and products the business sells. You can't get more aligned with business goals than that!
General Motors is off to a good start here. Corporate CIO Ralph Syzgenda years ago teamed each of his group CIOs with specific department heads. He wanted his CIOs to understand the business they were serving and to be on the front lines, ready and able to partner on creating solutions to business problems.
And that is just one model. Unlike Carr, I don't think IT has to dissolve into an entity that is strictly focused on maintenance, risk avoidance and cost-cutting. Astute CIOs are already practicing this in some form or another.
Yet if you spend too much time nursemaiding the past or practicing risk mitigation in the present, then the future -- and opportunity along with it -- will be here and gone before you know it. We still need IT leaders who can think conceptually, who can dream of ways to further business goals via technological advances. No matter what your present circumstances, you need to keep an eye on the future.
Carr advocates taking a more defensive posture toward IT investments. But sometimes the best defense is a good offense. What's needed now is to go back to the chalkboard and figure out the best strategy.
Patricia Keefe is a former Computerworld editor at large. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.