I had the pleasure of meeting Harvard Business School professor Andrew McAfee several years ago when he was writing a case study involving Business Objects. Prior to that meeting, I’d never heard of him; since then, I hear about him more and more. He seems to have emerged as a thought leader in how IT impacts business, an area that I think has been long neglected by the business school academic community.
So it was with considerable delight that I discovered his recent post about the old Silicon Valley saw: “it’s not about the technology” (which he abbreviates as INATT). Excerpts:
[INATT] is dangerous because it essentially denies two important facts:  that technologies can differ from each other in salient ways, and  that they can change over time. A lot of my work, for example these articles, is an attempt to articulate the managerially relevant differences across technologies. […]
[INATT] encourages listeners not to keep such differences in mind, and I think that’s the wrong idea. [ … It] also encourages the view that there’s nothing new under the sun — that one generation of technology aimed at addressing a business problem is the same as all other generations. So (for example) we need to collaborate and share knowledge better, but it’s not about the technology. […] This sense of INATT is pessimistic and self-defeating, even if it’s not intended to be. It denies that there can be improvements, incremental or radical, in the ability of technologies to accomplish important goals. I disagree categorically with this.
So do I, Andrew. His full post is here.
As someone running a Silicon Valley company focused on disrupting the multi-billion dollar DBMS oligopoly, and as someone who has spent over 20 years working in enterprise software, I can say categorically that sometimes it’s not about the technology (e.g., Ingres’ defeat at the hands of Oracle), but sometimes it is (e.g., the ascendency of the RDBMS itself).
While it may be fashionable for Silicon Valley to dismiss its roots, the simple fact is that:
- Technology does matter
- It’s not the only thing that matters
- Technology does indeed change over time, sometimes radically
- The noise about meaningless incremental differences in technology tends to deafen us to the signal about radical ones