At SIMposium a year ago in Chicago, IT critic Nicholas Carr was invited into the lions den of senior IT executives to voice his theories questioning the value of IT to an audience of unbelievers. Subsequent speakers took shots at Carr. A year later, the retaliatory volleys continued, leading of with Carrs ideological nemesis, IT researcher and author Don Tapscott.
Warren McFarlan, Harvard business school professor, introduced Tapscott as the antidote to Carrs book, "Does IT Matter?" "Nick Carr did us all a favor by laying down a marker and making us think of what value we really add," said McFarlan.
"I dont think there has ever been a more interesting or tougher time to be an IT professional. The context is rich with opportunity, and its also very problematic. In the last five years, we have been trying to renew growth and figure out ITs role in it," Tapscott said in his remarks.
Tapscott recently concluded a study titled, "IT and Competitive Advantage," sponsored by a number of large IT vendors, including AT&T, Cisco Systems Inc., IBM and SAP. From his research, he concludes that "IT is more important than ever." Leading the charge, Tapscott said, are processors embedded in everyday appliances, connected over the Internet. "The Internet is becoming the Hypernet," he told the audience.
Another speaker at the conference, Bruce Rogow, an industry researcher and analyst, said the climate is changing in IT, as it moves from its recent doldrums of cost center to become once again an innovation center. His talk focused on the challenges of making that transition.
"In the last four years, it was all about cost cutting, and now people are interested in generating revenue," said Rogow. "IT is going after the high-hanging fruit again." But the return to relevance may not be a spectacular one, he added. "It will be about connecting little pieces of the business."
Scott Floeck, CIO of Staples Inc., echoed that theme in a panel discussion. "The last four to five years have been about cost control. But now were trying to double the size of the company." Floeck pointed to several Staples initiatives in which IT is crucial: a guarantee that its stores will have all types of printer ink and toner cartridges in stock or will offer discounts and free delivery; the ability for customers to apply for vendor rebates online; and a forthcoming "Easy Shopper" initiative in which customers will be advised how to change their purchasing patterns to save money. "Our goal is to create differentiation through the use of technology," said Floeck.
Another panelist, Don Haile, CIO of Fidelity Investments Inc., said his company now issues regular Podcasts in both audio and video, an innovation that has been very popular among business unit leaders at the mutual funds giant. "You always have to define your customer base to understand whos interested in it," said Haile.
Mary Finlay, CIO of Partners Healthcare, who appeared on the same panel, said, "Innovation doesnt always have to be the big idea" to have an impact on an organization. Innovation rarely just happens, there needs to be an environment that supports and sustains it."
The views of many speakers were summed up by Tapscott. "The time has come for the open networked enterprise. The time has come for IT to take its rightful place at the center of the enterprise."