IT has reached something of a crossroads, according to influential journals such as the Harvard Business Review, which recently published a controversial thesis: IT doesn't matter.
Conflict is brewing between those who believe businesses have enough IT and may never need to buy another server or software upgrade ever again and those who think we are only at the beginning of our use and exploitation of IT. So who is right?
It is true that many firms invested heavily in new ERP systems and servers in the run-up to the new millennium. As a result, they ended up with systems with potential functionality beyond their needs.
Without the need for millennium compliance, in addition to the growth of internet technologies, the massive overspend on IT would not have happened; nor would the massive correction on IT spending caused by economic recession and global security threats.
As a result, many businesses today find themselves with software that has not added significant value to their staff or their customers.
Nicholas Carr, author of IT Doesn't Matter, advocates that businesses are trying to put right the technology overspend of the late 1990s by holding back on investment now.
Carr believes the mentality is: "Moore's Law guarantees that the longer you wait to make an IT purchase, the more you'll get for your money."
Carr also observes that technology vendors have recognised the need to switch away from selling packaged software to software as a utility. His argument is that IT has reached a state of ubiquity and commoditisation that means it no longer has a competitive edge.
Again, this is true to a certain extent. But the analogy falls down because IT continues to evolve and is not a uniform commodity. The methods of creating and delivering electricity may improve all the time, but electricity itself is static in its development and is the same product, wherever it is used.
For SMEs in particular, IT cannot be commoditised to a one-package-fits-all power source. Software must be specific to the needs of the business.
It is not just a case of piping in a standard package. There are two elements here: the IT must be right for the users, and then it must be delivered in a way that suits the organisation.
Utility computing in the form of remote delivery and maintenance is changing the way IT is bought, used and managed. It enables organisations to change the way they buy and use the technology that underpins their business processes.
So IT is not a commodity with little to choose between packages. However, competitive edge is down to having the right - not necessarily the most functionally rich - IT, what you do with it and how you pay for it.
Support, maintenance and upgrades are the biggest problems faced by many businesses.
Colin Boag is managing director of JBS Computer Services.
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