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Do we really need IT?

Over a cup of joe and a plate of eggs, the chatter down at the local diner takes a techie turn, when the patrons talk about whether IT matters anymore.

Saturday mornings may not be the best time to confront the computing problems of the business world. I’d rather be talking to my wife over a late breakfast stack of flapjacks and a cuppa java. However, on a regularly irregular basis, I get together with three or four friends in the business world early Saturday morning. This usually happens at a local breakfast emporium (ouefs a la grease platter), where the coffee is a strong blend–that is, yesterday’s coffee with today’s.

It’s not exactly a business meeting, but we get to air our opinions in a blowzy, friendly atmosphere. Or as one of them put it, “It beats mowing the lawn when there’s dew on it.”

The most recent gathering started like this:

“I hear that IT is dead.”

“Good.”

The initial statement was from Ted, owner of a large local hardware store. The retort was from Jan, who operates three thriving beauty boutiques in town. These folks know that I do a lot of enterprise IT work, so the assault was direct and early. I had little doubt the reference was to the ongoing brouhaha over a paper written for the Harvard Business Review by Nicholas Carr, titled “IT Doesn’t Matter.”

Carr’s main point is that information technology is little more than another piece of infrastructure in modern life, and is thus simply one of several everyday costs of doing business. Therefore, only a foolhardy company would overspend on it. Still … IT doesn’t matter?

“Notification for IT’s death is premature,” I said.

At this point, Marcie, who owns a small manufacturing company just outside of town, jumped in: “Whoa, whoa–what’s this stuff about information technology being dead, or it doesn’t matter?”

“I’ve been reading about it,” said Ted. “The basic idea– correct me if I’m wrong,” he added, looking directly at me–“is that information technology is now so much a part of mainstream business that it’s a commodity. Since everybody has it, using IT no longer gives a company a competitive advantage. Which is why they’re saying IT doesn’t matter anymore.”

“Everybody’s got it, so it’s no big deal,” said Marcie, apparently certain that she was summing up the issue.

Jan asked, “Do they mean information technology in general, or specifically corporate IT–like a company’s IT department?”

I answered, “The original article meant IT in general, but the negative reaction was so strong because corporate IT people felt threatened. Jan, why did you say ‘Good’ when Ted asked if IT was dead?”

“Because I’ve had my run-ins with IT people over the years,” she repiled. “Especially when that consultant I hired wanted me to put in a–what did he call it?–a WAN between my three shops. It would have cost a fortune, and I would’ve needed to hire somebody to run it. I couldn’t afford that!”

Over the rim of his coffee cup, Ted mumbled, “I had an IT department once.” He paused to sip. “Yup, my cousin Jimmy and his wife Sue. I brought ’em in to build a program to track my inventory. That was about 1983; the PC was still pretty new. Jimmy was just a kid then, but he was sure into PCs. Pretty good programmer too. At least I thought so. His wife did the testing and data entry.” Ted went back to his coffee.

“Ted, there has to be a point somewhere along this line,” said Jan.

“So what happened to this program?” I asked.

Ted put his coffee down and grinned. “Worked OK for about a year. Except we couldn’t keep the small stuff on it–you know, hardware, parts, supplies. It just got the numbers all wrong.”

I winced. “You mean it couldn’t do your core business? Not much of a competitive advantage.”

Ted’s grin got even bigger, “Oh, I dunno. It taught me about computers enough, so I was ready when Great Plains came along with an inventory program.” Marcie piped up between mouthfuls of toast. “See, his IT became just a regular part of his business.”

I know that it takes a fairly large business to support a permanent IT staff. None of these people, and the hundreds of thousands of smaller businesses of their kind, can afford an IT staff. For most of them, just acquiring the most basic information technology was a struggle (and some of them are still struggling).

I asked, “Have any of you ever used IT for competitive advantage?”

Forks paused in midair. They looked at each other. Marcie said, “I think so. I mean I think we were the first pine nut extraction manufacturer to have a Web site. I had a guy in the office who was really into the Internet, and he made a Web site for us.”

I asked Marcie, “Were you able to measure how much business the site generated?”

She put her down her egg-laden fork. “Well, no, come to think of it. It just seemed like it should help.”

“From where I sit,” said Ted, “IT can become a commodity, a service, a utility–whatever–as fast as possible. My concern is with how much it costs and how reliable it is, not whether I can beat the hinges off the hardware store in the next town.”

That, I figured, is the heart of Carr’s thesis–that having IT readily, cheaply, and reliably is what most companies want. Most small or medium-sized businesses do, anyway. There is a difference, though, in what more creative IT can do. I tried to make that point.

“Most of you are in retailing one way or another,” I said. “For your customers, what’s more important, the cash register or the checkout clerk? From one perspective, it’s all about making that cash register hum and report to the central computer about your sales. From another perspective, the checkout is a major customer experience, where the interaction between cash register, checkout clerk, and customer is extremely important. That cash register is the hardware part of IT, and though there are differences between various machines–they’re basically the same. But the clerk, what matters is their knowledge, personality, and ability to use the register hardware quickly and accurately. Now, that’s IT in the sense I’m talking about. The retailer that gets that right has a competitive advantage.”

Ted looked thoughtful, for a moment perhaps digesting the idea instead of food. He said, “What you’re saying is that putting people together with IT is what’s important?”

“Not exactly,” I replied. “Although, for me, the mix of business process, information technology, and the abilities of employees has always been more important than the individual parts. No, what I mean is that some parts of IT are obviously becoming commodities–think computer gear–and that’s all to the good. But there’s still a lot of room for companies, even small ones, to find ways of using IT creatively and to competitive advantage.”

“But not for accounting or inventory tracking, right?” said Jan.

“Right. Those are things that are common business services and sooner or later there won’t be much difference in how businesses do them–except, and this is an important exception, where doing things differently is a part of the core business.”

“Ah,” said Ted, “but doing things differently costs money. Doesn’t that bring people like us back to the problem of an IT staff? It seems to me the big corporations will always have an advantage on us. In that sense, for us, IT doesn’t matter.”

I wasn’t ready to concede the point, but breakfast was winding down, and it was a beautiful Saturday morning. I finished my coffee and took solace in the knowledge that the discussion, or one like it, would come up again another day.

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