Top positive review
Provocative title, narrow claim, strong argument
on July 4, 2004
You may recall the uproar in 2003 around a short Harvard Business Review article entitled "IT Doesn't Matter". Various IT company leaders spoke out against the article, with Carly Fiorina calling it "dead wrong" and Steve Ballmer calling it "hogwash". There were also many lengthy rebuttals. Nicholas Carr, the author of the original 8 page article, expanded the argument into a well-written book, explaining his claim more thoroughly and responding to his critics.
The book (like the article) has a provocative title, but in fact Carr's claim is much narrower than the title suggests. Carr is only focused on *corporate IT*, the systems that companies build and deploy for their own use and the use of their customers and suppliers. He is not looking at consumer IT --- the digital wonders that are showing up in our living rooms, cars, and in our pockets. And he is not looking at governmental IT --- the systems that are used to find terrorists, wage combat, or evaluate welfare eligibility.
More significantly, Carr is also focused on one corporate use of IT, to attain a *competitive advantage*. Can Coke achieve some competitive advantage over Pepsi by implementing a new application? Carr is not asking whether IT can add value to a company --- clearly there are thousands of examples of IT saving money, providing value to customers, to suppliers, and adding value in other ways. Instead, Carr asks whether we can expect IT to add this value in a way that competitors cannot quickly realize the same added value. Can Coke do something significant with IT that will not be quickly replicated by Pepsi?
Finally, Carr agrees that in the past IT has been used to gain competitive advantages. By automating reservations, pricing, and seat assignments in the 1960s, American Airlines really did achieve a lasting advantage over its rivals. By creating logistics applications in the 1980s, Walmart really did achieve a lasting advantage over Sears and Kmart. Carr's claim is that *those days are gone*, that the days of using IT for competitive advantage are over.
His claim rests on three broad trends, each of which undercuts the opportunities for competitive advantage. First, the time needed to replicate a particular IT application---the "technology replication cycle" in his words---has shortened considerably over the last few decades. Hardware, tools and platform technologies have made it increasingly easier, faster, and cheaper to replicate a successful application built elsewhere. This declining technology cycle is likely to continue, and make any advantage in the ownership of a particular application to be short-lived.
Another reinforcing trend is the push toward standardization. 40 years ago every company built their own applications. Since then software products have emerged. These products can always be customized to particular situations, but they often are not. It is often cheaper and easier to adapt the business to the best practices in SAP, rather than to customize SAP to the specifics of the business. The economics of standardization --- the cost advantages for companies to be like their competitors --- trump the advantages of maintaining differences. BPOs further this push to standardization, and away from competitive advantage via IT.
A third trend is the spread of IT business insight. It is much better understood today how to achieve value with IT. The secrets of how to do this spreads with individual experience, with analysts, with books and trade rags, and with consultants. If a company has success with a particular technology, everyone in their industry knows about it quickly.
These three trends (Carr claims) are reducing IT to a role much like electricity. Electricity is critical to all businesses today, but (aside from mishaps like the recent problems in California) no one would expect to find a competitive advantage in superior use of electricity.
Does Carr make his case? I think he does, although there are some big exceptions to his argument.