The specter raised by Nicholas Carr in 2003 -- that IT doesn't matter -- has risen again, summoned by the two prevailing trends of the day: cloud computing and the consumerization of IT.
CIOs today would do well to read the original Harvard Business Review essay, in which Carr argues that IT is becoming a commodity the same way rail transportation or electric power did. The essay has well-known flaws, the worst of which is Carr's narrow characterization of IT as network, compute, and storage infrastructure. But in at least one respect Carr was prescient: The commoditization of those core infrastructure functions is now very real.
[ Also see "Stewardship, not ownership: It's time for IT to give up on control" by InfoWorld's Bob Lewis. | And read Eric Knorr's "2011: The year personal computing will reinvent itself." ]
For an increasing number of workloads, it matters less and less whether you spin up VMs in Amazon's data center or in your own -- or even whether you license applications on premise or rent them from an SaaS provider. Today's key questions are "How fast can I get it?" and "What's the TCO?"
At the same time, CIOs are under assault from a commoditizing force Carr never anticipated: Consumer devices that users bring to work. IT has been forced to accommodate mobile devices tied to commercial networks because smartphones and tablets deliver huge gains in productivity.
CIOs who try to erect a Maginot line against commoditization, and insist that all IT from infrastructure to mobile devices must stay under their complete control, hobble their business' competitiveness and limit their careers. At the same time, no company would tolerate the chaos of lines of business buying and deploying their own technologies without regard to security, integration, or economies of scale.
Finding a middle ground between those extremes is part, but not all, of becoming a modern CIO. We're entering a period of accelerated change, one that includes the breakup of the Windows desktop paradigm. Here's my free-as-in-beer advice to CIOs, CTOs, and other technology leaders: