Panel: Be skeptical, not complacent about IT

Skepticism about what IT promises to deliver is fine, but businesses should not become complacent about IT, vendor executives and Nicholas Carr, author of “IT Doesn’t Matter,” a much-debated Harvard Business Review article published in May, said Monday in a panel discussion at the Comdex trade show.

Jeff Raikes, group vice-president of productivity and business services at Microsoft Corp., and Deepak Advani, a vice-president of marketing at IBM Corp., faced off with Carr in the panel discussion.

Carr repeated key arguments made in his article: IT has become so commonplace that it no longer gives companies a competitive advantage; and there is no correlation between the amount of money a company spends on IT and its financial results.

There is a “danger” in Carr’s story and that is complacency, said Raikes. “If people were to get sucked into this notion of complacency that I think (Carr) tends to push, they will get left out,” he said.

Instead, companies should focus on the information part of IT and less on technology, according to Raikes. “The I in IT makes the difference,” he said. “I know very few businesses out there that would say they figured out all the information they need about their customers and about their business practices.”

Raikes offered Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s adoption of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags as an example of a great use of IT.

IBM’s Advani agreed. “To take an attitude to just cut back in IT and lay back, I think that is very dangerous,” he said. “The application of IT is still not commonplace.” Advani added that the concept of electronic business is really just starting off.

Carr countered saying that he is not advocating complacency but skepticism. “Companies shouldn’t be complacent; the word I would use is skeptical,” he said. Raikes and Carr appeared to agree to this word. “Skeptical, but with an open mind,” Raikes said.

From the audience, Gregory Fell, an IT manager with Ford Motor Co., said open-mindedness is fine, but IT vendors have to show him tangible savings before he’ll buy. Soft savings like productivity gains don’t do anything for him, he said. “If we … can get hard savings, absolute cost savings, we’ll do it. If not, we won’t.”

Raikes said that some productivity gains just can’t be measured in cost, while IBM’s Advani made a sales pitch and invited Fell to chat after the session to talk about tangible savings.

Businesses that maintain discipline in IT spending are the ones to gain a competitive advantage, Carr said.

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