Carr, and a crisis of confidence


I’m not ashamed to say I watch certain reality TV shows. Vive le difference. But the ones who do – but say they don’t – have a tendency to get defensive. It’s called touching a nerve.

Well, it’s clear by now, judging from industry reaction, that Nicholas Carr has touched an awfully big nerve.

The U.S. economist published a now-infamous paper earlier this year, titled IT Doesn’t Matter. It seems to be on the minds of vendors, end users and even my fellow journalists. See Chris Conrath’s treatment of the subject in our Feature section.

Now I admit, I haven’t read the entire paper, but Carr’s thesis in summary is that IT has become a commodity, that there’s no longer any competitive edge to be had for businesses by looking to IT unless it’s around cost-cutting. He says that most large companies are by now on an equal IT footing.

In short, he says, our time in the spotlight has come – and gone.

On one level this makes a lot of sense – it is clear that the big investments have already been made, and there’s only so much infrastructure hardware and software than can be bought.

But even if IT is indeed a commodity, isn’t that a good thing? Surely all the blood, sweat and tears exerted by you, over the past decades wasn’t devoted to trying to find a model of corporate computing that was more complex. Computing has become simpler because you fought to make it that way. Simpler technology is an accomplishment for which we should be congratulating ourselves.

Evidence of this trend abounds. Today, many of you are choosing from two major platform standards: Windows and Linux – you’re voting with your feet on Unix, albeit gradually. The Web has long since made software, and its integration, simpler, and behind those achievements are lots of standards. Even the notebook I’m writing this on, and the software it stores, has been made infinitely simpler to use due to standards. Standards enable commodities, and once commodity status has been reached, true ease-of-use has arrived.

So what’s behind the defensive reactions? Obviously equipment vendors don’t like to talk about this notion. Carr’s thesis also comes at a time when the IT job market is tight, and one likes to hear that the career they’ve chosen may have plateaued.

Basic corporate computing may be a commodity at the grassroots level, but other business-related challenges still lie ahead. Most companies have a long way to go to satisfy basic IT security best practices, for example. There’s also a lot of integration work yet to be done. So the way I see it, it’s about time that IT didn’t matter. What it means is those who drive value out of IT, the people behind the technology, will now matter more than ever before.