CHICAGO—IT still does matter. And it will continue to matter for the foreseeable future. Those messages resounded strongly at the annual Symposium of the Society for Information Management here this week.
The views were provoked by the message of opening night guest speaker Nicholas G. Carr, author of the recently published book “Does IT Matter?” In the book and in the article “IT Doesnt Matter” published in the Harvard Business Review last year, Carr contends that IT is rapidly approaching maturity due to standardization and commoditization.
“In information technology, Im arguing were approaching the end of the wave where you can get competitive advantage from it,” Carr told the SIM audience.
One audience member asked, “Arent you going down the path of the mythical patent officer who quit his job because there were no more things to invent?”
Carr responded that the trend is not a superficial one. “Its not just a cyclical phenomenon due to the dot-com bust. Thats what the vendors are hoping for. Its been influenced by cyclicality, but it goes deeper than that,” Carr asserted.
“I think hes absolutely wrong. Just imagine the business world trying to do what we do without the Internet,” said David Luce, CIO of Rockefeller Group International, a real estate firm in New York and the incoming president of SIM. A volunteer organization of 3,000 top-level IT professionals, SIM is dedicated to education, advocacy and career networking. It has 30 chapters in major cities nationwide.
Keynote speaker Ed Brennan, executive chairman of American Airlines and former chairman of Sears Roebuck & Co., said IT is no more than one-tenth of the way to achieving its full potential. “With all the stuff thats been done, we still have 90 percent of it out there.”
Brennan said IT dollars are producing more valuable results today than in the past. “In the early days, we spent a lot of money, but underachieved. We became cynical about IT.” He noted that IT was often walled off from business units. “Now theyre integrated. The CIO must be part of the management team.”
Scott Griffin, CIO of Boeing, seconded Brennans views in a speech. “I agree with Ed Brennan. Weve tapped 10 percent of the potential,” he said.
Luce agreed. “If you accept that assessment, then its hard to imagine getting to the point of being irrelevant,” said Luce, although he did allow that some aspects of information technology are becoming generic. “Processing of data, as with ASPs [application service providers], will be something of a commodity,” said Luce.
However, he said, the art and profession of IT go much beyond that. “Theres a creative element in IT that applies to the business needs of strategic elements in an organization. Some organizations are successful and others are not successful,” Luce said, adding, “We hear over and over that IT people must be strong business leaders, that they must interpret business needs. That cant be a commodity.”
Carr conceded, no matter how commoditized IT becomes, there is room for some companies to do better than others. “There will always be companies that are more skilled and talented and do a better job of managing it.”
SIM member Jerry Luftman, director of graduate IS programs at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., took a poke at the iconoclastic IT author. “Mr. Carr, take your head out of the sand. Its up to us to change the perception of IT. We need to tell Mr. Carr hes all wet.”