Nearly fifteen years ago Nicholas G. Carr proclaimed Information Technology inconsequential. Boldly, the title of his article, published in 2003 by Harvard Business Review, declared IT Doesn’t Matter.
”IT is best seen as the latest in a series of broadly adopted technologies that have reshaped industry over the past two centuries—from the steam engine and the railroad to the telegraph and the telephone to the electric generator and the internal combustion engine,” Carr proclaimed.
As their popularity grew, he wrote, the competitive advantage that caused companies to invest heavily in information technologies had been all but erased. “From a strategic standpoint, they became invisible; they no longer mattered.”
"Day by day, educational stakeholders are beginning to better understand the value of technology to core educational missions"
Carr was speaking to the rapid growth and investment in information technologies from the advent of the microprocessor through the 1990s and the “intuitive” assumption of business leaders that the ubiquity of information technologies signaled their strategic value.
As Carr pointed out, the assumption failed to acknowledge that information technologies were, and are, infrastructural. During early stages, infrastructure technologies assume characteristics of proprietary technologies as they catalyze structural change and become integral to market strategy. But over time, the proprietary characteristics of infrastructure technologies fade and their value is no different than any other commodity.
Among the most illustrative and omniscient of Carr’s comment was his belief that, “more and more companies will fulfill their IT requirements simply by purchasing fee-based ‘Web services’ from third parties—similar to the way they currently buy electric power or telecommunication services.” Indeed, many did.
Yet, Carr was speaking to competitive advantages in competitive markets, where early entry and adoption of information technologies can create advantage. In competitive markets, as Carr wrote, a resource like information technology eventually, “becomes essential to competition but inconsequential to strategy.”
Despite Carr’s controversial stance and the passage of time, his article is still relevant for Chief Information Officers and other IT professionals in non-competitive markets.
Unlike competitive markets, increasing investment in information technologies in non-competitive markets, especially in elementary and secondary education, may actually position IT leaders to increase the strategic value and perceptions of their work.
The reason is simple–infrastructural technologies are desperately needed in today’s education sector.
Often, even among school administrators and teachers, whose work is becoming increasingly digitized, technology investment drives strategic planning in pedagogy, assessment, and educational outcomes.
Yet, despite the increased inclination to invest in technologies, implementation of technology solutions can be ad hoc at the school level and contribute little to, or even detract from, the organizational goals.
In this sense, commoditization is intrinsically valuable for IT leaders responsible for implementing enterprise technologies in public education, as well as the schools and districts that benefit. After all, the goal of implementing technology solutions in education is not to gain competitive advantage and capture market share. The aim is to redefine standards, eliminate wasteful practices, improve the delivery of instruction, and reinvest savings into refining instructional models.
Day by day, educational stakeholders are beginning to better understand the value of technology to core educational missions, especially in the classroom. However, there remains uncertainty about the role of IT in integrating or connecting new technologies to broader infrastructural planning.
However, IT leaders are positioned to redefine the strategic value of their work and, incidentally, oversee increasing investment in technologies critical to organizational success. And they should. The question is whether they will be effective in doing so.
As professionals trained in (and comfortable with) project management, systems architecture and the ins and outs of system design, the focus of IT professionals and their teams on technical or service-oriented relationships within the organization can leave them ill-equipped for ensuring stakeholders at every level of the organizations understand their own strategic value in achieving mission-driven success.
Worse yet, perceptions of the IT function can complicate efforts to advocate for strategic value. Taking an active role in driving organizational, strategic change rather than supporting existing operations is an uneasy fit for most IT leaders, who would prefer to rely on technical expertise alone as a source of influence. Often, they are simply ill-equipped to champion the value of information technology across functions.
There is hope, but it will take investment. Peter Drucker once suggested, “What is needed in effectiveness is competence.” While technical skills and expertise matter as much today to the success of IT professionals, so too does the ability to work cross-functionally to anticipate, adapt, collaborate and deliver local solutions while building organizational support for infrastructural change and long-term strategic initiatives.
CIOs must acknowledge that hard skills position the organization for success. Soft skills drive organizations to succeed. That is, more than ever before, IT professionals must work to develop and refine the organizational intelligence of their staff, from front-line technicians to upper management. Each needs to leverage organizational intelligence to capitalize on the potential strategic value of its team and its leaders.