The 30,000-Foot View

By Joe McKendrick

McKendrick & Associates home page

Where's the Inspiration?

There are voices out there that claim IT doesn't deliver the strategic punch it used to be able to deliver. In May of 2003, Nicholas Carr made the case in a provocative Harvard Business Review article entitled "IT Doesn't Matter." This year, he followed up with an entire book called "Does IT Matter?" Carr states that IT has been a victim of it's own success; it's affordability and availability to all has leveled the playing field, and therefore no one gains any competitive advantage. By analogy, no company gains market share as a result of having an exceptionally well-wired electrical system. (Yet would be in big trouble without one.) Carr even argues that while information technology has delivered benefits to some companies, "for most businesses, it has been a source more of frustration and disappointment than of glory."

Carr's argument makes a lot of sense when considering the commoditization of hardware, operating systems, networks, and storage. Plus, we've all tuned out the constant, breathless claims of "revolutionary" technologies coming out of vendors' hype machines.

However, as any data center manager knows, IT is a living, breathing entity that is constantly evolving and undergoing innovation. And IT innovation is not built on what you have, but what you do with it. Just about everyone now has video equipment, but last time I checked, there hasn't been an unusually large surge of new Steven Spielbergs or Spike Lees coming on the scene.

Carr correctly states that IT should not get full credit for corporate success. But no one has ever expected IT to solely responsible for a company's rise or fall. Adroit, inspired management, supported by the right IT tools, makes the difference. A company that smartly and innovatively leverages its IT in new and creative ways, as part of an enlightened management strategy, will move to the head of the pack. Carr points out that Wal-Mart's success isn't a result of IT itself, but of "a complex, tightly integrated, and difficult-to-copy combination of processes and activities." Likewise, Dell made use of IT in its build-to-order strategy, but its success came from efficient end-runs around traditional distribution channels.

One point Carr overlooks - just as economists often do - is the rise of the entrepreneurial economy. IT has lowered the barriers to entry across all industries, to the point where the smallest microcompanies, comprised of a few individuals, working remotely and interconnected to networks of partners and contractors, can compete against the biggest players in the global economy. This may account for some of the issues larger enterprises have with the competitiveness of their IT implementations.

There are many new thresholds and frontiers to which IT has only just recently opened the door. But it takes inspired leaders and managers to seize the advantage. Notably, few companies have truly leveraged their information stores into data warehouses or business intelligence systems that can answer new questions and expose new ideas for moving the business forward. Also, companies are just beginning to explore grid computing and Web services, which boosts development and processing capabilities at a mere fraction of current costs - a sure way to boost margins and get a leg up on competitors.

Carr may be correct when he talks about the commoditization of the first generation of IT, but we've only just begun to see where the next generation of technology can take us.

Note: Portions of this originally appeared as an editorial in Database Trends & Applications

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