Field NotesIT Does Matter

Romi Mahajan

InThe Rebel, Albert Camus wrote, "...through a curious transposition peculiar to our times, it is innocence that is called upon to justify itself." Though he was writing about the scourge of colonialism, the theme is resonant today in a far different context: Why must IT always be called on to justify itself with regard to investment, people, value, and strategy? Is the skepticism deserved, or is it the product of ignorance or malfeasance? I am bothered because it just shouldn't be this way. What other parts of the company (well, except perhaps Marketing) are questioned all the time and scrutinized to their very essence?

Let's examine these perspectives, starting with the view that any skepticism directed at IT is deserved. According to some folks, business was conducted very well and with some precision before IT was even a dream. Business is about relationships, and relationships are lived and realized through human contact. The hearts and minds of employees are the assets and all things external to them are far less relevant.

Further, as Nicholas Carr suggests (Harvard Business Review, May 2003), IT is a commodity and confers no comparative advantage, and therefore doesn't matter. In a capitalist enterprise, not mattering is equivalent to being scorned.

Finally, IT doesn't make money for the company. In fact, the situation is worse than making no money; the accoutrements of IT—computers, servers, software, and IT pros—cost money. Since companies are in business to make money, IT therefore should be viewed with some suspicion.

These arguments are fairly easy to deflect, however. Yes, business is about humans, but it's not only about humans. It's also about what they make, where they go, how they interact, and how quickly they do all of this. The role IT plays in these areas is unambiguous.

Is IT a commodity? Not exactly. Though some of the pieces may be fungible, the whole certainly is not. Have you ever worked for or with a company that didn't do IT well? If so, you know that good IT may not be sufficient for a great business, but it sure is necessary.

Finally, it is a mistake to think that the "last mile transaction" is the only step that matters in the process of making money. That step can't happen without a whole lot of preliminary effort. Moreover, e-commerce has emerged as a core means of transaction and, without IT, there is no e-commerce.

Now, what about the idea that the lack of respect for IT is a function of lack of knowledge, or worse? You could argue that it's the very skill of IT organization that's the problem. Enterprises are geographically dispersed, as are their customers and partners. IT allows them all to communicate and transact with amazing speed and clarity and, in this way, is a fundamental enabler of business. Because IT is so much part of the infrastructure in many industries, it is considered a given and therefore accorded no respect. It's to the credit of most IT organizations, of course, that they are invisible to the end user. That fact should engender reward, not disdain.

The idea that IT has no value because it doesn't produce money is disingenuous—ultimately that idea dismisses every single thing that actually enables sales to happen. You might as well question the value of the building the business is quartered in or the desks people sit at. Does this perspective result from competition among various parts of the organization, or from lack of vision? No matter; those who cannot see how other parts of the body economic contribute to the whole are simply being petty.

It's not hard to figure out where I stand. In my view, IT plays an important role in business today, more important in some cases than in others. In some scenarios, IT is axiomatically relevant and in others, its role is on the periphery. Ultimately, however, IT does indeed matter and so, therefore, do you.

Romi Mahajan is Chief Marketing Officer of Ascentium Corporation. Before joining Ascentium, he spent 7+ years at Microsoft where his last role was as Director of Technical Audience and Platform Marketing. Romi is widely published in the areas of technology, politics, economics, and sociology.