Unconventional speaker on tap for IT convention

September 6, 2004

BY MICHAEL KRAUSS

Here's a Labor Day quiz. Suppose I walk into a union hall filled with plumbers and say, "Plumbing is great, but plumbing doesn't matter."

Maybe you're an accountant, doing whatever accountants do to relax, and some joker walks up and says, "Accounting doesn't matter." Perhaps you're a doctor, a truck driver, a carpenter or a teacher. How would you feel?

Over 600 of the nation's foremost information technology executives will get to answer that question Sunday at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers, when author Nicholas Carr arrives to open the Society for Information Management's annual SIMposium conference.

The conclave attracts a who's who of the nation's technology professionals, executives who guide hundreds of millions in corporate technology spending.

Spend less on tech

Carr will tell them to spend less on computer technology, a clear break with a nearly 40-year trend. He'll recommend companies move away from cutting-edge technology. He'll say organizations can get the IT they need for less money with less risk.

It should be a provocative night at the Sheraton.

Carr is the highly cerebral and often controversial author who is singlehandedly reshaping the way the business world thinks about information technology. His May 2003 Harvard Business Review article, "IT Doesn't Matter," is one of the most influential business essays of recent memory.

"I'm hoping to take a different view of information technology than the attendees might be used to," says Carr with mild understatement. "I'm going to try to draw a distinction between business resources that are essential and those that are strategic," adds Carr, who thinks IT has evolved to a stage where it's necessary but not strategic. He'll illustrate that the same trend occurred with previous technologies, including electricity and railroads.

Carr's point: You rely on power companies for electricity and transportation companies to move freight. The same can be done with computing. Soon there will be information utility companies.

What will it take to be an IT executive in this environment? "It's about being a good manager rather than a great innovator," adds Carr.

While he believes deeply in the power of innovation, Carr will tell the audience to leave that to others. "Innovation now takes place at the supplier level. It's the IT vendors who are doing most of the innovation," says Carr.

Should we rush out and buy the next wave of computer chips? Not if you listen to Carr.

"There's been an assumption that every new advance is going to be put to use in business. I actually don't think that's true. You get to a point where IT capabilities go beyond the needs of most companies," he says.

According to Carr, most PC users do e-mail, word processing, Web browsing, and spreadsheets on their machines. Those functions were mature years ago. The next wave might give us supercomputer power on our desktops allowing us to edit audio and video, or play 3-D games, but that means little for most business users.

"We're at the point of diminishing returns," says Carr.

Hosting SIMposium is a feather in the cap for Chicago's tech community. Inviting Carr as an eye-opening speaker is a bold move. Carr's a global thought leader who typically flies over the Midwest. Credit Baxter International CIO John Moon, chair of the SIMposium program committee, with recruiting Carr.

Carr's ideas also drove the theme of the event. The title, "IT Leadership at the Crossroads: Directions for Success," reflects Carr's disruptive thinking, not the geographic location of the event.

IT wave has crested in biz

"I'm not arguing for the end of technological progress," says Carr. "I'm arguing that the wave that consisted of information technology in business has crested. There's going to be something new. There always is. I think it's going to be something different from what we know as IT."

Even Carr agrees there will be plenty of IT jobs for years to come. Still, I guess it's a good thing the Bio2006 trade show is coming here. Biotech could become the new infotech.

In case you're wondering, I think plumbers matter a whole lot. Who are you going to call when your basement floods? Not an IT exec. Happy Labor Day.

Michael Krauss is a Chicago-based tech writer and consultant.

 

 ©2004 Marion Consulting Partners