November 11, 2004 By Tod Newcombe
Nicholas G. Carr, a former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, has widely published his view that as technology matures, gets cheaper and more standardized, it loses its ability to help one organization distinguish itself from another.
In other words, technology no longer delivers a competitive advantage; it becomes part of the business infrastructure, another cost of doing business.
As a result, Carr says he believes there's more risk for organizations that pursue innovation through technology, which is becoming more diffuse, more ubiquitous and less of a differentiator in the marketplace.
Interestingly when Carr applies his point about less innovation to the public sector, he sees some good coming from it, as he stated in our cover story.
"As this commoditization trend continues, one thing you get is a shift in market power from the vendor or supplier of the technology to the buyer and user of technology. If you don't need to be on the cutting edge, you can back up. You get many more options, whether it is cheap commoditized hardware components, cheaper software or open source software. You get more choices. You get more power. You get more leverage over vendors. So there are big opportunities today for companies or governmental organizations to spend less for IT, but get more."
In fact, Carr is not the first to point this out. Others, including The New York Times and The Economist, have reported on this trend.
When I mentioned to a group of CIOs that he would be appearing in our magazine, I received looks of alarm. Carr has become a lightning rod for those who feel the role of IT and the CIO in the public and private sector is under siege. In the last issue of Government Technology's Public CIO, former West Virginia CIO Keith Comstock called Carr's new book, Does IT Matter?, a danger in the hands of elected officials -- council members and legislators -- who might misinterpret his views.
What is troubling is his long-term view of CIOs.
While Carr expects them to be around for a while, he predicts a gradual change in the role -- from strategic visionary to good manager. Eventually CIOs, like the vice presidents of electricity who managed a rather new resource at the turn of the 20th century, will disappear.
While I agree with Carr that IT is becoming more standardized and less expensive for buyers, it is a rather unique resource that requires strategic leaders to decide how best it can enable an organization -- like government -- to operate more efficiently.
The CIO's vision and knowledge are needed more than ever.
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