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What the America's Cup Taught Us About Competition in the Digital Age

Updated: May 25, 2022

In May 2003, an American writer named Nicolas Carr created a firestorm in the IT industry when he published an article in Harvard Business Review titled IT Doesn’t Matter.

The controversy mainly stemmed from the title - an early version of what we would now call clickbait. Carr’s main point was that technology had become so ubiquitous and commoditised that there was no particular business advantage to be gained from the use of technology. He has since written other books which are more prominently promoted because it turns out he was wrong.

New Zealand Emirates chase boats and large white yacht
America's Cup Village in Auckland, New Zealand

2003 was also the year New Zealand racers followed their two history-making wins of the America's Cup with a disastrous and humiliating first race when the boat shipped green water over the rail and all kinds of equipment failed.

Having the best people in the world doesn’t help if your equipment is not up to the challenge, but equally, you can’t buy top performance just by acquiring the latest cool products.

This brings us to the 2021 America's Cup, surely one of the most exciting spectacles in this tournament we’ve ever seen. The America's Cup village is quiet now, but earlier this year it was buzzing. I never got tired of watching those amazing craft zipping around the Auckland harbour like wet Formula 1 race cars.

Front of the America's Cup Village building - The Emirates Team New Zealand Base powered by Genesis
The Emirates Team New Zealand Base calm on a weekend afternoon in Auckland

While it’s true that the America’s Cup is usually won by the fastest boat, digital technology alone doesn’t create top speeds: it’s how the sailors and navigators interact with that hugely complex machine.

I’m pretty confident that the basic ropes I learned as a kid in my father’s trailer-sailer would not give me the skills to get up on the foils, never mind do it as fast as Burling and his team did under pressure in those nail-biting races that decided the Cup. Equally, there is no way to get your hands on the America’s Cup by simply buying the right technology. If you don't know how to sail or get the most out of the technology you aren’t going to be able to win the America’s Cup - even if you do have the fastest boat.

Support boat in dock with text "36th America's Cup Presented by PRADA Auckland 2021"
36th America's Cup support boat quietly docked in Auckland

Just as there is no prepackaged cup-winning combination for sale, no digital commodity comes with a guarantee of success. Effective use of digital products requires constant improvement of your tools and the way they work in your organisation. That requires guidance and experience as well as knowledge of the products purchased.

Why invest in an expensive vessel unless you have the sailing expertise to match? CIO Studio exists to provide that expertise to any business that needs it, and our rates are a little less than those of an America’s Cup crew. Don’t get stranded in deep water, or put up with water coming over the side.

Ray Delany is the Founder of CIO Studio, a company built to partner with SMEs and help them solve the “strategy” problem and align their digital investment with their business outcomes.


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