Revisiting core IT strategies

By now you’re familiar with the recent Harvard Business Review story “IT doesn’t matter,” which argues that the commoditization of IT has negated its strategic value.

The author labels IT an infrastructure technology and compares it to railroads and electricity, saying that, just as those technologies provided early adopters with competitive advantages, once everyone had access the advantages vanished.

If only IT was as easy as buying boxcars and kilowatts. The mistake he makes is assuming that network computing begins and ends with acquisition. It has never been about the technology. It has always been about the application of technology. Give ERP to one man and he will create a multimillion-dollar mess, while another will shape it into competitive advantage.

And the fact that companies absorb technology at different rates – because of legacy positions, the state of data stores, company knowledgebase, among other factors – means that emulating gains of a competitor is always harder than the author suggests.

But regardless if you loved or hated the HBR piece, it makes you stop and think. With stories like this floating around it’s probably time to review if you are adequately conveying the strategic role of IT in your organization.

Are you even using the right language? Michael Fong, CEO of integrator Calence Inc., says he reminds clients to think about the network in business terms. “In banking, for example, how do you translate 99 discrete component-level metrics into a report that outlines how often the branch can’t conduct x, y and z business?” he asks.

Fortunately, some of the hottest developments are network-related and already familiar to the brass – such as convergence, mobility and virtualization – so it shouldn’t be hard to show the strategic value.

In fact, because these initiatives are network-centric, they can even help make the case for base infrastructure improvements. As Fong says: “What always kills VoIP deals? If your network isn’t up to the job you have to upgrade that, too. That’s why the net is strategic. If it is good, it makes all manners of things possible.”

Take IP contact centers, for example. You want to be able to support traditional skills-based call routing and also address e-mail and Web-based queries. Done correctly, advanced call center capabilities might help land big deals.

Can competitors catch up? If they’ve made the right technology decisions and invested wisely enough. But it will take time. And that has been true from the dawn of IT.