Flipping the Big Switch

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 01-10-2008

In his new book, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google, author Nicholas Carr suggests that the corporate IT organization as we know it is unlikely to survive.

This isn't the first time Carr has written about IT's potential demise. And when the controversial Carr talks, people listen. And talk back.

In our December issue, we printed an excerpt of The Big Switch. Reader comments poured in. But this time, unlike past occasions, Carr has as many supporters as critics. "Will our IT organizations change in the future?" asks David Bash, director of IT for Nebraska Furniture Mart, reflecting Carr's premise. "Only an idiot would say no."

In The Big Switch, Carr writes of IT departments: "They can be expected to pursue a hybrid approach for many years, supplying some hardware and software requirements themselves and purchasing others over the grid. One of the key challenges for IT departments lies in making the right decisions about what to hold onto and what to let go."

Dan Rainey, CIO for the city of Ann Arbor, Mich., says his department is at that stage. His five-year business plan has the IT staff moving to consulting roles and managing vendors and business processes. At the same time, more of their services are coming from Carr's so-called cloud of services, data and devices. "Ultimately, we will be the integrators of services and data and our value proposition will be our full understanding of the busi nesses we are in," he says. "I hate to admit it, but this time Mr. Carr is right."

Still, some take issue with Carr's predictions.

Mike Block, an assistant vice president and IT officer with Equitable Bank in sub urban Milwaukee, acknowledges that IT departments' mission will evolve as tools change. But it's not as clear-cut as Carr makes it seem. "Until the computer—or the network, for that matter—becomes as easy to operate as, say, a television, I don't think IT departments have much to get concerned about," he says.

Block says running a large enterprise over the Web is difficult today and may be impossible in the future. Instead, he says, companies need to enforce discipline in solving tasks: Employees need to use common tools in their efforts to be intelligible across the enterprise. Leaving workers to choose their tools to accomplish tasks can lead to inefficiency and chaos.

Chris Johnson, an application development manager with State Street Bank, the Boston financial services company, says Carr's claim that new applications will be a mix of universally available utilities oversimplifies the issue. Customers demand appli cations requiring a complexity that can't be found in the broadly available utilities to which Carr alludes. "As long as custom ers demand cutting-edge solutions that provide an advantage over the competition," Johnson says, "the role of the IT department will never go away."

And Lee Koenig, a project leader with Enterprise Rent-A-Car, says Carr overstates the impact of Web-based utilities. If he were a CIO, Koenig says, he would be left restless at night by the prospect of his company "brought to its knees" by interrupted Internet access.

CIOs won't be too quick to send their business into the cloud, Koenig says, adding: "Considering things like disas ter recovery, security, app customization, etc., it is more likely that the Internet infrastructure will buckle long before businesses will buy into the concept of moving their computing requirements and [even less likely] data out into 'the cloud' in numbers big enough to affect IT jobs."