Five Technology Truths: Truth #2 IT Does Matter

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In his disruptive 2004 book, Does IT Matter?, Nicholas Carr argued that innovations are so rapidly replicated that it essentially neutralizes the strategic advantage of technology. He coined the phrase, “vanishing advantage” to apply to technology and called it a “perfect commodity.”

 The book caused a firestorm of reaction, as if Carr was the first one to say these things. I think, in fact, he was just tapping into a business zeitgeist that had already been around for nearly ten years.

 This argument goes that technology is like electricity. You don’t have to understand it. (Who really knows how a transformer works?) You just have to be able to employ it to your advantage. Carr, under the Harvard Business imprint, was endorsing businesses wanted to believe anyway.

 Here’s a secret: Employing the word “commodity” is business code for demeaning something because you’re afraid of it. Calling something a “cost center” is just another flavor of the same ice cream.


Technology is so ingrained in most businesses, especially media and publishing, that calling it a cost center is a ridiculous and outdate idea.

 Here’s another ridiculous idea: “What we’ll do is wait until the dollars are justified by digital revenue, and then we’ll invest.”

 I had a client whose famous internal wait-to-invest phrase was, “We want to be settlers and not pioneers.” The trouble was, by the time they decided the digital media revolution was far enough along to justify investing, they simply couldn’t catch up fast enough. Any large-scale technology roll-out takes two years. But even more difficult to overcome, the cultural and educational issues that exist in an organization that hasn’t been bought into the digital future all along.

(Excerpt from Admonster’s keynote, March 7, 2011)

Five Technology Truths: Truth #1

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(Excerpts from my Keynote Speech at the Admonsters conference in Memphis 3/7.)

 Executives at the top of media and publishing companies don’t understand technology.

 A story.

 I am in the office of a client who is a billionaire. He is in the process of making a decision about an investment in one of his portfolio companies in media and publishing. Here is how the conversation went:

 HIM: So, Anna, you say the database is like the stapler.

 ME: No. No. The database is like the file cabinet.

 HIM: Really? I thought it was like the stapler.

 ME: No. File cabinet.

 I removed the stapler from the table. It was confusing the conversation, and this man needed to make a seven-digit decision.

 This can’t really happen? You can’t really mean the C-level executives, investors, and board members you interact with are that technologically illiterate?

 Yes. They are.

I have been asked why email notifications can’t be sent to alert executives when email is down. I have been asked to estimate the cost of a system migration when no one in the room can tell me what the current technology is. I have been asked, “Where does the Internet live?”

 The only possible answer to this last question is, “Arkansas.”

 I hear: You can’t actually be suggesting that CEOs of media and publishing companies have the equivalent of engineering degrees?

 I can and I do.

 Barack Obama recently said that technological innovation was the key advantage that would bring jobs back to the United States. And in media and publishing, there is broad agreement that technology is not only necessary for success, but for survival.

 So exactly what expertise is appropriate to expect from the leaders of our industry?

 A word about arrogance. Many CEOs are.

 (Newsflash, I know.)

 However, in the future it will be said that it was on the watch of this particular generation of media and publishing executives that entire swaths of American journalism died.

 You might say that the industry is facing hard problems. And you’d be right. How exactly do we change our digital pennies back into dollars? The truth is nobody knows. Get a bunch of publishers in a room and throw out the phrase, “Monetize video.” Instantly the gathering turns into the equivalent of an AA meeting.

 “Do you know how to do it?”

 “No. Not me. We’re losing our shirts. How about you?”

 Sure. The problems are hard. But last time I checked, Google was solving hard problems. Cancer researchers are too. Pixar creates pure magic capturing light and dimension in algorithms.

 Or maybe, if we got the best minds all focused on these core issues of how content survives and gets paid for—maybe they would all conclude that there is no solution. If that is indeed true, we all need to quit wasting our time.

 What’s the alternative? Go out and meet the future. Or better yet, create it. Jeff Bezos, despite legions of naysayers declaring that eBooks would never work, literally made the eBook market in this country. That’s what making your own future looks like. As everyone knows, waiting for the future to happen to you looks like the music industry.

To tackle these big issues, we need strong leadership. Strong, technologically savvy leadership.

 I just returned from the AdMonsters conference in Memphis. Talk to anyone who works in a company with any kind of traditional media legacy, and you hear a similar story: Entrenched technological ignorance is keeping their publications from addressing and solving the big issues they face.

Truth #2 to come.