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Why IT Matters More Than Ever

📄 Contents

  1. The Company That Couldn't Run a Second Shift
  2. So Does IT Really Matter?
  3. What Really Matters
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The author of The Nomadic Developer, Aaron Erickson, argues that Nick Carr had it wrong: IT not only matters in the modern organization, but matters to a huge degree.
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In 2003, Harvard Business Review published Nick Carr's seminal essay, "IT Doesn't Matter." I remember that month well. The previous years of the PC boom, followed by the dotcom boom, had seen a tidal wave of money spent on technology. Much money was wasted on heavy investment in systems that either sat unused on a shelf, or ultimately were scrapped. To top it all off, the big "emergency" of the time, the millennium bug, turned out not to be as bad as everyone had feared. The time was rife for someone to declare the strategic irrelevancy of technology, and Mr. Carr stepped in and made the case. Because many executives desperately wanted to reduce technology spending at the time (in the aftermath of all that gluttony), reading Carr's article was like receiving manna from heaven.

As a technology practitioner myself, however, it should surprise no one that I believe Mr. Carr to be wrong. Regardless of any biases I may have, the reality is that his argument contains several holes that have become ever more glaring with the passage of time. My intent with this article is to shine a light on what's wrong with the "IT doesn't matter" argument. I'll even go further: I'd like to demonstrate why, now more than ever, investing—not just in technology, but in the intersection of technology and people—is the most important action that a company or organization can take.

The Company That Couldn't Run a Second Shift

In my years as a technology consultant, I've certainly seen what happens when you don't invest in technology. One client I vividly remember—we'll call it Company X—had quite a conundrum. An amalgamation of nine different manufacturing organizations built up over time, Company X spent very conservatively on technology. When making an acquisition, Company X would do as little as possible on integration; for example, only enough to get the accounting systems and the order-entry systems sending orders to a central mainframe.

Over time, this management behavior at Company X resulted in a "Rube Goldberg" system requiring the work of hordes of COBOL programmers just to keep running. Overnight order processing required more than 200 manual steps. The maintenance cost of this Frankenstein's monster of a codebase included at least 40 full-time COBOL programmers, a couple of dozen system operators, and who knows how much management hierarchy on top of all that. Company X was spending an estimated $15 million annually just to keep the system at its current level of functionality.

Unfortunately, that $15 million wasn't even the most significant problem. When demand increased, Company X decided to run a second shift. The issue was that the system literally could not process orders in greater than about a 12-hour window. Moving to a 16-hour window, and eventually to a round-the-clock business, would require either radical changes to the old system or building an entirely new system—and it would have to match the quirks of the old system, in order to maintain compatibility with the nine other satellite systems!

Business analysts estimated that adding a second shift would increase gross margin in this low-margin business by around 3%, while increasing top-line revenue by over 20%. Moving to round-the-clock processing was also a precursor to being able to sell into new global markets, which would have increased top-line revenue even further.

Sadly, none of these happy improvements could come to pass for Company X.

The problems at this company were many, of which technology was merely one aspect. The deeper issue was that the operators and programmers who understood that mess of a codebase had a vested interest in keeping the current technology set running. But even if all those people were replaced, technical debt in Company X had built up over a long period of time, to the point that the company would need to invest around 2–3 times its annual profit in order to get out from under the load of technical debt.

In this culture of hubris, fear, and inertia, any new technology initiative to pay off the technical debt would almost certainly be killed. It was literally a recipe for company bankruptcy. When competitors are blowing you out of the water with 3% higher margins and 20% higher top-line revenue, taking that increased profitability and investing it into further productivity-enhancing technologies, it's hard to see why "IT doesn't matter." If you're a CEO in a company that can't compete because of technical debt, you almost certainly will understand just how much IT does matter.

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