Back in 2003, Nicholas Carr of Harvard Business School created a stir in the IT world with his Harvard report Does IT Matter?

Putting aside the appalling pun, the title (Harvard is obviously no comedy apprenticeship institution), the essence of the report was that IT was, in reality, the database application, and as everyone had them, the differential advantage of IT to an organisation had disappeared.

In an age where the database application was a commodity, it was no more the differentiation of a business’s activity than electricity — a basic resource.

Followers of this column know that I am one of the few merciless reviewers of these armchair industry prediction peddlars.

If we plot the course of IT since the report, I would contend, Your Honour, that Mr Carr’s case should plainly be dismissed.

In reality the ability of an organisation to optimise web and e-commerce interactions — now central to today’s business and crucial for survival — meet ever more complex regulatory and legal process.

The explosion of social media content and non-database applications around unstructured content are all key to confirming one’s competitive advantage.

Web optimisation alone is regularly lifting sales by 15 per cent, using the same infrastructure, inventory and business model.

So Mr Carr’s is wrong.

However, the fat lady has not yet sung (as she never does in IT) and so last week I heard a new version of the Carr argument.


It goes like this: as all servers move to the cloud, the CIO will need to be good at one thing — negotiating service level agreements (SLAs).

As this is a definable process, the CIO will cease to matter.

Although at first sight this argument has a compelling case, it is falling into the same trap as the good Mr Carr.

It defines the landscape, like so many have done before it, in terms only visible today. It is indeed true that some existing IT functions will become cloud-based commodities and, yes, the CIO’s art will be the SLA.

But innovation will continue, new functionalities will appear, new business models, new ways of working and new forms of data will always be shaking up the market.

The CIO will have to understand these technologies, work out how to relate them to the business need, pick and choose from the candidates and place his or her bets on which ones will succeed.

Whether they are in the cloud or not, some of these new ideas will confer competitive advantage, at least for a while.

Miss them, or get the bets wrong, and the organisation will suffer.

Although delivery may or may not be cloud-based, the explosion of change around non-database information, video, audio, text and social media, combined with the growth in mobile computing, means the options are opening up, not closing down.