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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.

The 2003 essay advocated being more of technology follower than a leader. Do you think that's still the right approach for most businesses, to not be on the cutting edge?
Well, I was writing in the context of what IT's core responsibilities were 10 years ago, when it was very much about purchasing and managing infrastructure and enterprise applications. So in those terms, yes, very much so. I don't particularly think you'd want to install on-premises some cutting-edge CRM system, supposing a vendor offered such a thing anymore. You'd want to go the utility route. The idea of being on the cutting edge and being an in-house innovator at that level of IT is gone, pretty much.

Then again, there are other areas, particularly on the marketing side, such as, "How do we connect with consumers shopping through smartphones?" I think there are new areas that involve IT where being an innovator may well pay off.

What are you working on today?
I'm working on a new book. If all goes well I'll have a manuscript done by end of the year, and it will be out next year, maybe. I'm not talking about what it's about yet, but it's another examination of technology and its human effects. It will be a bit more about business, I think, than my last book, "The Shallows," was. Not the IT side of things, but more about talent and people and how they do their jobs.

Do people still ask about your older work?
Yes. One thing I've noticed is that a lot of colleges in introductory IT classes will use "IT Doesn't Matter" as the first thing students read to get them talking about bigger issues of how IT fits into a company. A lot of people I meet, that's still what they know me for. They might have been 10 years old 10 years ago, but they've just read it.

When you read the article, a lot of the content is relevant today and doesn't seem a decade old, but some sections immediately seem dated. One that stands out is the mention of Sun Microsystems, which isn't around anymore.
In many ways Sun, in their marketing messages and in their rhetoric, was the kind of company that was closest to the idea that I was talking about. And yet, they provide a case study about what happens when you're too early with a message. The network is the computer, thin clients ... they were just too early. And they had some execution problems.

Thanks for taking a trip down memory lane and revisiting the article 10 years later. Any last comments?
In talking about 10 years ago, the article was very much in my mind influenced by the dot-com collapse. There had been so much hype -- the only thing that matters is IT, it's going to take over everything. So the dot-com collapse was one of the reasons that I started thinking about the implications for this within companies, and within IT departments. The hype in the dot-com world in some ways echoed what was going on inside companies. It was a reaction to that.

 

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