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Q&A: Nick Carr on 10th anniversary of 'IT Doesn't Matter'

Ann Bednarz | May 15, 2013
Nick Carr rocked the tech world with his controversial essay in the May 2003 issue of the Harvard Business Review, titled "IT Doesn't Matter." Carr claimed companies were overspending on IT and that the competitive advantage to be gained by tech investments was shrinking as technology became more commoditized and accessible to everyone. On the 10-year anniversary of the article's publication, Carr talked with Network World's Ann Bednarz about what he got right, what he got wrong, and how the piece remains relevant today.

In some ways it doesn't seem like a 10-year-old piece. Many of the ideas you wrote about are issues that companies today are still grappling with.
Some of the details are outdated, of course. But in some ways what I think I did that hadn't been done before, or at least hadn't been done as clearly as I set it out, was to put the question of IT firmly into the broader question of business strategy. My argument was that this isn't really about hardware or software, it's not really about technology, it's about broader issues of strategy. I think that question is always there. That's one of the reasons it's had legs, I think.

The other reason that I think it's had legs is that I've been told the article served as an inspiration to a lot of entrepreneurs who got interested in cloud-based businesses for corporations. The whole cloud movement, which was at least a little bit predicted by the article, has also been a reason that it continues to be meaningful to people, since we're still obviously working through that transition.

How far along are we on the path to the cloud? Are companies making progress?
This also happens to be the fifth anniversary of my book "The Big Switch," which was about cloud computing. And in that book, I said that I thought we were talking about a 20-year transition. I think that's probably still true. If we're five years into that, there's still more than a decade to go.

If you look at IT, the bulk of investment these days, certainly on the vendor side, is on cloud systems and applications. On the other hand, if you look at corporate spending, cloud is still a fairly small percentage of overall spending, even though it's growing quickly. So we're still kind of between two eras. A lot of corporate IT spending and attention still has to be devoted to proprietary databases and in-house systems. It's going to take a long time to make that transition. I think we're still at the beginning of that shift.

As IT makes that transition, what skills are most important?
My focus for the last five years has shifted more toward the cultural and social implications of computers, so I haven't been focused strongly on trends in IT. I do think that IT ultimately is going to be a smaller department in terms of headcount, but the successful IT departments and IT managers will play a more strategic and kind of consultative role -- thinking about marketing implications of apps and social media and things like that. I think the emphasis is still going to be on being the bridge between technological possibilities and business goals, and less about optimizing the technology itself. That's a trend that has been going on for some time now and I think will continue.


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