It’s Not Not About the Technology

One of the most common phrases I hear in discussions of any type of IT initiative, from Enterprise 2.0 to ERP to systems integration, is "It’s not about the technology." I’ve heard this from vendors, consultants, technologists, executives inside and outside the IT function, analysts, pundits, and academics. Searching for the exact phrase yields about 1800 results on Google Blog Search, 17,700 on Google Web Search, and at least one book title. I’m sure I’ve said it myself a few times, although I try not to.

People usually mean one of two things when they say INATT; one of them is correct but somewhat uninformative, and the other conveys a lot of information, but is incorrect and even dangerous. The correct-but-bland meaning is "It’s not about the technology alone." In other words, a piece of technology will not spontaneously or independently start delivering value, generating benefits, and doing precisely what its deployers want it to do. Technologies have to be managed in order to do any of these things; they’re not magic bullets or miracle cures.

This version of INATT is clearly accurate, but how often, and to whom, does it need to be said? I very rarely come across anyone these days who thinks that technologies are magic bullets. All the companies I work with know from ample experience that IT efforts need to be managed. They may not handle their deployments perfectly, but they’re well past the stage of setting out a new piece of IT, then sitting back and waiting for the benefits to accrue. This version of INATT might be a useful reminder to managers who are underestimating the amount of change management required to succeed on a given project, but it’s not really news to them.

The other meaning behind INATT is "The details of this technology can be ignored for the purposes of this discussion." If true, this is great news for every generalist, because it means that they don’t need to take time to familiarize themselves with any aspect of the technology in question. They can just treat it as a black box that will convert specified inputs into specified outputs if installed correctly.

This perspective 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. Losing sight of either of these can lead to confusion, or worse. For example, it’s well established that IT can help integrate the enterprise, but do they all do so in the same way? INATT, taken to the extreme, would cause a company to treat IM and R/3 the same way (after all, they both integrate the enterprise and enable business processes). A lot of my work, for example these articles, is an attempt to articulate the managerially relevant differences across technologies. The second version of INATT encourages listeners not to keep such differences in mind, and I think that’s the wrong idea.

INATT, version 2, 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. We’ve been disappointed with our past results in these areas for reasons that have nothing to do with the technologies we were using, and there’s nothing about any new technologies that gives us better chances of success now.

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. A lot of my writing on Enterprise 2.0, in this blog and elsewhere, has stressed that the IT toolkit available to help with collaboration, innovation, and knowledge sharing has recently become a great deal richer and better. This was also one of the points I tried to make in my recent debate with Tom Davenport. INATT works against my goals in this area, and I’ve started to cringe when I hear it.

Sometimes, at least in part, it is about the technology.