Disruption and disruptive innovation have been in the spotlight of late. The guru of disruptive innovation, Clayton Christensen, and his famous theory were put under the scanner in a highly critical if somewhat flippant recent piece by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker. Just a few weeks earlier, the New York Times carried a provocative article titled “Business School, Disrupted,” that examined the potential of MOOCs to change management education and chronicled the troubled efforts of arguably the world’s strongest business school brand, Harvard Business School, to embrace MOOCs.
Is the problem with disruptive innovation or innovation itself?
Though Lepore’s article is ostensibly targeted at disruptive innovation, her grouse seems to be with innovation itself. She chronicles how “progress” used to be the ideal, till the notion of “progress” got discredited because of the many negatives that came along with it (atom bombs, for instance). Today, innovation has become the holy grail even though innovation can result in several unanticipated negative consequences.
As someone who has beaten the innovation drum for close to 2 decades now, I have to admit that some of this criticism is justified. The word innovation is used quite indiscriminately these days because it’s the “in thing.” I remember grimacing when I once read a report on the Indian BPO industry that gushingly identified picking up and dropping employees at home as the most important innovation of the industry! But, many people are sensitized to this debate – whenever I try to define innovation in my class these days, we end up having a lively discussion about the difference between improvement and innovation. I must admit that in keeping with the times, and reflecting the importance of small changes in most business contexts, my own definition of innovation has become much broader over time (see below)!
Innovation can be criticized on several counts including a propensity to create needs that are not fundamental, being wasteful of resources, and, at times, acting as a smokescreen for other less desirable activities. The best example of this last one is the success of the pharmaceutical industry in justifying high prices for drugs in the name of innovation, when some studies have shown that what really pushes up the price of drugs is the marketing activities undertaken by these companies (that these marketing practices are often far from kosher is another dimension of this story!).
But Lepore’s main target is disruptive innovation. Much of her criticism is targeted at the process of Christensen’s theory-building. She cites examples from Christensen’s own work to try to establish that disruptive innovation is not based on strong empirical evidence. She faults it for not being predictive, pointing out that Clayton Christensen predicted that the iPhone would not be successful! She accuses Christensen of picking and choosing data to suit his theory, and suggests that the cases he cites don’t take alternative explanations into account.
Some of this criticism may be unjustified. As far as I can make out, there is no “theory” of disruptive innovation. It’s an interesting concept, particularly when it is contrasted with “sustaining” innovation (for a review of disruptive innovation, see my earlier post. Incidentally, this is the post on my blog that has the highest number of hits!). Christensen advanced the concept of disruptive innovation as an explanation for why several successful companies failed.
In fact, disruptive innovation can be subject to legitimate criticism, but not along the lines of many of Lepore’s arguments. Christensen sees disruptive innovation as a new way of doing things that is often inferior to the existing way, but one which advances rapidly thereafter, so much so that it can overtake the sustaining innovation trajectory at some point. One of the difficulties I have always found is identifying which (potentially) disruptive innovation will actually succeed and which will fizzle out.
Which disruption will succeed?
MOOCs is a good example. Plain vanilla online learning has been around for some time, and the demise of education as we know it has been predicted for the last 15 years. But, the first phase of online learning proved to be a complement to conventional education rather than a substitute. It’s only in the last few years that the improvement in streaming technologies and the huge increase in the availability of low-cost internet bandwidth have resulted in the take-off of MOOCs. Interestingly, MOOCs are still dependent on the teacher, only you now see her in video streamed from the MOOCs site.
However, even today, the jury is out as to whether MOOCs will replace classroom education. MOOCs seem to work well for self-motivated adult learners but there are many aspects of education that can’t be achieved through MOOCs such as socialization, working in groups, and values.
Lepore is critical of the way people tend to see disruption lurking everywhere. But, there are two reasons why disruption has become a part of our everyday lexicon. The first is that the internet has been a trigger for disruption in different industries and product categories. Particularly where the product itself is digitisable (books, movies, photos, music, etc.), the internet has clearly acted as a force for disruption. The second is related to cost and reach. The focus on reaching out to price-sensitive “unserved” or “under-served” markets (the so-called “bottom of the pyramid”) has led to people trying to discover ways of delivering products and services shorn of frills, and at the lowest cost possible. This has inevitably led to attempts to “disrupt” markets in the way that Christensen suggests. But, though this sounds easy, it’s not so in practice as several efforts have shown (see, for example, my earlier post on chotukool).
Tailpiece: What can we learn from this episode?
There may be a lesson for would-be management gurus from the Christensen experience. He has become an easy target because he appears to be a “one-trick pony,” known for disruptive innovation and nothing else. Contrast this with Michael Porter (5-forces framework, generic competitive strategies, competitive advantage of nations, clusters, CSR and shared value) and CK Prahalad (strategic intent, core competence, bottom of the pyramid) and you realize the difference. Both Prahalad and Porter moved on to other ideas, and such portfolio diversification made their reputations less vulnerable to sniper fire!
[All views expressed here are the personal views of the author.]