It's probably best to think of "IT" paradigmatically. As the writer above stated, IT is a business term rather than a technical or even, for that matter, a precisely-definable one. Is IT an idea or a thing?
Information seems to have its own rules. But business fundamentally is unconcerned with those rules as such, and treats the whole of Information Technology in terms it understands as well as a developer understands code...
The Information Technology Asset
A business uses ("leverages") information technology to enrich itself and to further its designs. So it has to conceive of the whole world of information in relation to what it does. Much like a student competing for a grade and unconcerned with actually learning the material, it follows the principle of least resistance, learning and using only as much as is absolutely necessary to gain business advantage from the technology.
It doesn't begin at the computer, either, but with the telecommunication electronics which would eventually make networking possible. We take it for granted now, but it was revolutionary in its day as well, and business' response equally predictable...
"This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.
The device is inherently of no use to us."
- Western Union internal memo, 1876.1
Traditionally, businesses have competed through two primary means, competition by cost and by differentiation. Strategic advantage was attained by becoming a low-cost producer of a good/service, or by appearance of uniqueness and quality of a product and the establishment of name, trademark, and identity associated with it. IT as a strategical rather than a logistical concern has augmented and changed business priority structure.
Strategic use of information systems is about optimizing the processes inherent in doing business and utilizing collected information to obtain a competitive advantage.
Examples of this include:
These processes of automation and optimization serve to lend a definite and quantifiable advantage to businesses which employ them.
Information Technology as an Agent of Change
The internet and the technologies of telecommunications in general have also created new ways for businesses to compete, and to extend themselves past once-insurmountable boundaries.
Among other uses, the Internet has allowed businesses to compete in:
- cost efficiencies
- mass customization
- extending themselves to global markets
Marketing and sales have also been revolutionized, as information technology allows such phenomena as user-customized pricing, native language front-end displays and multi-currency e-commerce, with a centralized transactional database managing the complexity behind the scenes.
Social and workplace trends caused by business use of information technology include an increase of telecommuting and the prevalence of so-called "knowledge work", where the intellectual and technical sophistication and specialized knowledges of workers becomes a valuable asset. Additionally, the facilitation of so-called "virtual organizations" consisting of key executive personnel and outsourcing of most operational business functions, as well as the spread of free-agency among highly-skilled IT specialists with project-based rather than organization-based loyalty, have occured as a direct result of our adoption of information systems and telecommunications technology into the workplace.
There are also unique and problematic issues with IT in terms of its potential impact upon our notions of individual privacy, and the very real concerns of information security. Equally, the issues which began with the first industrial revolution have only been magnified. Expert systems and sophisticated robotics, phenomenal data analysis capabilities, and other advantages which technology has facilitated make concerns with automation an issue of major debate, threatening job security and even the nature of employment of "human capital".
Information wants to be free. But it seems that such liberty has its costs.
1 Watson, Pitt, Berthon. 1996. Data Base 27(Fall): 58-67.
Germane (ed.) The Executive Course Addison-Wesley 1986.
Martin, Brown, DeHayes, Hoffer, Perkins Managing Information Technology (4th Edition) Prentice-Hall 2002.