The New York Times has a review of “Does IT Matter?” a new book by Harvard Business School Press. The author contends that knowing how to manage information technology (“IT”) no longer gives companies a competitive edge because technology is basically a utility like electricity, which everyone has access to and can readily use. I disagree with the author’s observation that use of IT provides no opportunity for competitive advantage. As with all things, it depends on how you use the widely available technology, or whether you use it at all.
It is true that information technology has become commoditized to the point where it is cheap and widely available. But that doesn’t mean IT does not have the potential to give a competitive advantage. Most people know about Google, but many don’t know how to make full use of it. Let’s take lawyers as an example.
Google has a thing called ‘Google Groups’ that a lot of people don’ t know about. Basically, it is the old ‘Usenet’ discussion groups that got bought by Google. A lot of the discussion is just noise, but some of it is useful and –here’s the cool part– you can search these discussion groups using the powerful Google technology. Google’s search technology is cheap and widely available, so where’s the advantage of using it?
If I want to preserve a competitive legal advantage then maybe I shouldn ‘t tell you. But I’m a nice guy, so I will.
Let’s say you’re involved in a case involving a defective water heater and the plaintiff’s expert is going to be deposed about his opinions on the cause of a home fire, which he says is attributable to your company’s water heater. And let’s say the expert likes to hang out in a ‘Google Group’ and pontificate on various things, such as his belief that aliens are living among us and have even taken control of the U.S. Congress. Just because ‘Google Groups’ are free to search that doesn’t mean that every defense lawyer who is going to prepare for a deposition is going to run his opposing expert’s name to see if there is some useful impeachment information.
But for the lawyer who does run the search and finds the information there is a clear competitive advantage. Same goes for the client who hires the lawyer who thinks about running such a search. Using the Internet to search for information is part of what I consider to be ‘using IT’ and, to me, it matters a lot.
Incidentally, since we are talking about lawyers searching the internet, I highly recommend a book that is called The Lawyer’s Guide to Fact Finding on the Internet by Carole Levitt and Mark Rosch. The example I gave is one that I derived from hearing the authors speak, and from reading their book. The book contains many other great examples of how a lawyer can find useful information on the Internet.
The Internet is full of free information, but learning how to access it effectively so that you have a competitive advantage takes time and costs a little bit of money. Taking the time to learn how to use IT effectively is the way you get an advantage. The key principle isn’t limited to using technology. You can buy a cookbook but not learn anything about cooking. You might have to actually pick up the book and read it too. Unfortunate, isn’t it?
Update: Bryan Gates has a good example of how he used the Internet to his advantage in a legal matter.