At first blush, it would seem that the Internet has spawned a revolution in the ways in which businesses manage their relationships with customers (and others) as well as restructuring their internal processes. On closer inspection, however, it becomes evident that it is merely an extension of a trend in "so-called strategic applications" that begin thirty years earlier. In spite of a flock of new technology and buzzwords, the business models are not at all new.

Few companies are innovative: most merely imitate others, often without a complete understanding of the motives that drive their actions or the consequences that result. This is the manner in which technology spreads.

Also, the competitive advantage of a technology is preserved only by secrecy - once the competition finds out about an innovation and copies it, it is no longer an advantage to the inventor. Hence it is in their interest to keep the really good ideas, or the proper way to implement a good idea, unknown to competitors.

In the networked environment, technology becomes even less of an advantage: if companies establish standards for data interchange, all players become roped into the same solutions, and there is no advantage to any individual firm.

A few rhetorical questions:

A sustainable advantage cannot be copied from another firm; it cannot be provided by a hired consultant; it cannot be obtained by using shrink-wrapped solutions; it cannot be achieved in a culture that benchmarks against industry standards.

Flimsy Advantage

In instances where an IT solution has been shown to provide a competitive advantage, the evidence is cited to show the advantage the first-mover gains prior to the imitation of the same solution (or something similar) by competitors. This is because the cited success was an ephemeral advantage: once a solution has been copied by competitors, even the original innovator has lost the benefit of having it.

This is compounded by the widespread use of solutions providers, a firm that develops an innovative solution for one customer, then shrink-wraps it and sells it to other firms, touting the advantages gained by the first customer. With even the second sale, the "edge" is dulled, and when the solution becomes an industry standard, there is no longer any advantage to having it.

It is further compounded in the present age by the Internet itself, where competitors have direct access to information that was once more difficult to obtain, and even direct access to the (customer-facing) systems of very firm in the industry.

Also, there are very few "original" ideas. Most solutions are imitations of an innovative solution. Because the imitator did not fully understand the idea, his imitation is an imperfect copy, more often flawed than improved by the process of imitation.

There is also the concept of achieving sustained advantage by a process of the continuous generation of innovative applications - in effect, having a constant stream of the very best ideas and thereby staying a step ahead of the competitors. The author doesn't use the word "laughable" to describe this concept, but he might just as well.

The conclusion, then, is that the technology of systems and software applications does not, and cannot, constitute a sustainable competitive advantage.

Alternative Models of Strategy and Competition

Strategy is the product of thought: a company identifies the environment (opportunities and threats), assesses its own capabilities to exploit or avoid them (strengths and weaknesses), and determines a course of action to reposition the company accordingly. No artifact, no technology, can automate or facilitate this process, or substitute for the intuition and perception required to develop strategy. Technology is not a component of strategy, but a component of the implementation of strategy. A technology helps a company to move in the direction dictated by its strategy (it does not determine the direction in which to move).

The tenets of "rational management" maintain that planning and implementation should be strictly separated. In the author's view, this leads to myopic and disjointed decision making: strategy that cannot be implemented, and implementation that does not support the strategy. Strategy must drive, but it must consider implementation.

The strategy for managing information systems is based on the same model as industrial economics: input, effort, and output. The goal is efficiency (getting the greatest output for the least input and the least effort), and the advantage to be gained is in being more efficient than one's rivals. But unlike manufacturing, there is no incentive for efficiency: efficient systems do not result in appreciably lower costs for the organization. It may be appreciable in and of itself, but it achieves no organizational goals.

The primacy of efficiency is suited to an environment in which all firms produce an identical staple product - dominance goes to the firm who can produce the greatest quantity at the lowest price. But where products are differentiated, it's this differentiation that is the nature of competition: each firm must cultivate unique strengths and capabilities, and must defend their uniqueness against imitation by other firms. (Returning to the previous argument, there is no mathematical model for "uniqueness," and in fact the unique and unusual are purged from the design of a statistical model as extraneous and unimportant data).

True Stories

The author intends to present a handful of examples. EN: I don't care for the approach, as it always seems that the writer has cherry-picked exceptional cases that support his argument, but will annotate anyway.

In each of these instances, there was an existing task, methods for accomplishing the task were inefficient, so systems were developed in a piecemeal fashion to address the need that was not being adequately met by existing systems. In no case did the system lead the strategy: it simply applied technology to meet an existing need, to accomplish an existing goal.

It is also noted that each of these systems had the potential to provide its creator with an advantage over its competitors - but in each instance, the technology was soon available to competitors, leveling the playing field.

In a monopolistic sense, or perhaps a holistic one, these systems created greater efficiency for all players in the industry, and ultimately achieved a social good for the consumers as a whole, but this is a separate matter from competitive advantage.

The Virtues of Bricolage

The term "bricolage" means tinkering and experimenting with whatever resources are available to accomplish a goal. It encompasses a range of unconventional behavior (hacking, improvisation, etc.) undertaken to accomplish a goal, given that the tools and methods provided to accomplish that goal are inefficient or ineffective.

Bricolage leads to discovery of newer and better methods of doing things. It is, however, a practice that is discouraged in organizations that insist on employees following procedures, performing tasks as they are "supposed" (by the system designer) to be done. Control is implemented for the sake of efficiency, but at the expense of innovation.

The author attempts to restore the definition of "hacking," which has come to connote criminal activity. In its original sense, hacking connotes a series of guesses and a trial-and-error process to find a solution in a situation where traditional knowledge (or the knowledge of a given user) does not provide a straightforward and orthodox solution.

Individuals engage in bricolage when a system is ineffective or inefficient - or in other words, when doing what they are "supposed" to do would result in failure. It may be a single instance in which an unusual situation required unusual measures (the system was not designed to deal with exceptions) or it may be an ongoing problem (the system is poorly designed, period).

EN: I think the author misses the obvious metaphor of the ways in which workers jury-rig equipment, though maybe that's too direct to be allegorical.

Planning by Oxymorons

The author has a number of clever oxymorons: strategic improvisation, tinkering by design, systematic serendipity, gradual breakthroughs, etc., which seem a bit too clever, but it's exactly the sort of thing that sticks in the heads of a certain species of executive. Each is intended to stress the importance of providing latitude for workers to improvise, and for the organization to recognize the value of improvisation as a step toward discovery of hidden problems and their intuitive solutions.

The alternative, a rigid system of controls and demands of conformance to predefined practices and procedures, and dismisses (or punishes) any behavior that breaks fro established conventions, effectively prevents innovation and growth by restricting the way individuals act and think.