Electricity, the telephone, the steam engine, the telegraph, the railroad and
..IT? In his HBR article, "IT Doesn't Matter," Nicholas Carr has stirred up quite a bit of controversy around IT's role as strategic business differentiator. He examines the evolution of IT and argues that it follows a pattern very similar to that of earlier technologies like railroads and electricity. At the beginning of their evolution, these technologies provided opportunities for competitive advantage. However, as they become more and more available as they become ubiquitous they transform into "commodity inputs," and lose their strategic differentiation capabilities. From a strategic viewpoint, they essentially become "invisible." Carr distinguishes between proprietary technologies and what he calls infrastructural technologies. Proprietary technologies can provide a strategic advantage as long as they remain restricted through "physical limitations, intellectual property rights, high costs or a lack of standards," but once those restrictions are lifted, the strategic advantage is lost. In contrast, infrastructural technologies provide far greater value when shared. Although an infrastructural technology might appear proprietary in the early stages of buildout, eventually the characteristics and economics of infrastructural technology necessitate that they will be broadly shared and will become a part of the broader business infrastructure. To illustrate his point, Carr uses the example of a proprietary railroad. It is possible that a company might gain a competitive advantage by building lines only to their suppliers, but eventually this benefit would be trivial compared to the broader good realized by building a railway network. The same is true for IT - no company today would gain a cost-effective competitive advantage by narrowing its focus and implementing an Internet only between their suppliers to the exclusion of the rest of the world. To further shore up...
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