I have been kicking around a lot of the applications of technology to advocacy but I ran across an article by Nicholas Carr that has opened a new potential thought process for those of us in the nonprofit advocacy tech space.
“IT Doesn’t Matter” – May 2003 Harvard Business Review
The article is a pretty well crafted attack on the strategic value of information technologies in the business world. Carr argues that currently are in a period of the commoditization of IT. He looks at railways, electric power and IT curves of adoption and warns that the “resource” of IT is becoming essential for competition but inconsequential to strategy. It is a good article.
I disagree with his article as a whole…I would actually compare the IT revolution more with the advancement in medicine, the invention of the writing and agriculture. The information technology revolution does not seem to be just about data storage and transfer but more about computational power and being able to visualize and solve problems that seemed impossible just a few years ago. (I think of DNA mapping, Mars exploration, GIS visualization of environmental threats, monitoring global warming, etc.) On a basic level the IT revolution is helping employees solve problems ranging from spelling and math to finding directions. The IT revolution provides us with an opportunity to attack (and create) more problems with more depth than ever before. You can saturate the country with electrical power lines and railroads but not with computational power.
However, I did like the article and it has inspired some new thinking about open-source technology, approaches to nonprofit advocacy work and ways that nonprofit technology assistance providers need to adjust our thinking.
The bit that really has me stuck follows.
“Chief executives now routinely talk about the strategic value of information technology, about how they can use IT to gain a competitive edge, about the “digitization” of the business models. Most have hired strategy and consulting firms to provide fresh ideas on how to leverage their IT investments for differentiation and advantage.
Behind the change in thinking lies a simple assumption: that as IT’s potency and ubiquity have increased so too has its strategic value. ….It is mistaken…What makes a resource truly strategic-what gives it the basis for sustained competitive advantage –is not ubiquity but scarcity. You only gain an edge over rivals by having or doing something that they can’t have or do.”
We are seeing these patterns with Move-on, the Dean campaign, websites, email strategy, etc. The early adopters get some tactical and political advantage but soon other sites reproduce the tools and what once was a an advantage becomes “basic equipment”.
So…What are the implications for advocacy groups and campaigns?
1. The progressive advocacy movement must immediately focus on the advantages that we can develop that our opponents can not. The most obvious would be that the relationships with our supporters is based on good-will rather than financial gain. Another would be that the movement can “share” more effectively than competitive businesses (anti-sprawl groups can share data, techniques, staff, content and tools at lower costs than small developers or Walmart and Kmart)
2. We can shorten the learning curve across the sectors and geographic regions so that in a “fight to fight” basis our allies gain strategic advantage.
3.We can invest strategies that make the most use of cheap and easily accessible tools, in open-source projects and share hardware and expertise to quickly erode advantages gained by opposition at higher costs.
These approaches are all more consistent with network-centric advocacy than with strong organizational focused support and development. I think the Carr article will be one of those that need to sit on my desk to “ferment” for a few months before I really understand its full implications to advocacy theory and my work.