It seems our bookshops (there are still some good ones left) and the internet are chock full of ‘business-success’ stories/posts/blogs etc these days and many of these publications mention the impact of disruptive innovation whilst featuring famous US business leaders such as Steve Jobs and Jack Welsh or UK entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson.
It is my contention that while disruptive innovation is a major business phenomenon it is only identifiable once it is firmly established i.e. it is not possible to positively identify when first introduced.
Given the tsunami of new inventions that appear year on year this is problematic for both the inventors (would be entrepreneurs) themselves and for existing enterprises wishing to protect their valuable proprietary IP and technical know how from their encroachment.
This inability to identify potentially disruptive innovations has been a particular bone of contention with a Harvard colleague of the father of disruptive innovation Clayton M Christensen who first promoted the idea in his break-through and best-selling book The Innovator’s Dilemma in 1997.
When the New Yorker published historian Jill Lepore’s savage critique of disruptive innovation, it was an unexpected and brutal attack on one of the most widely cited and celebrated ideas in modern business.
The thrust of the onslaught was that Christensen had not forseen the potential of a number of important technological break-throughs; quoting the introduction of the Apple iPhone as an obvious example.
In response Christensen maintained that he had in fact addressed all the points Lepore raised in his subsequent publications and journal papers and made the point that as a well regarded researcher the historian should have read all the relevant material first before jumping (my word) to her conclusions.
Having spent the past six years researching disruptive technologies I can relate to the criticism but would point out that I personally always refer to potentially disruptive innovations as ‘perceived disruptive innovations’ for the very reason that it is near impossible to identify which innovation or technology will truly disrupt an industry or business model.
Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that numerous new inventions may appear to have the potential (see number of new patents issued) to truly disrupt but there is in fact a far smaller number that go on to undermine existing industries and established market leaders. What’s more the process can take 7-10 years (or more) to actually occur.
To my mind Christensen’s great contribution was his identifying the strategy and tactics new players undertake to successfully establish their ideas in particular targeting the unattractive (less profitable) BOP (Bottom of Pyramid) a market that the existing players and market leaders usually choose to ignore in the short to medium term.
Since Christensen’s views are virtually taken as dogma in nearly all business schools world-wide his thoughts have probably helped imbed within large corporations a marked reluctance to embrace ‘risky’ innovation (at least initially) and only act when absolutely compelled to.
For some companies this pragmatism will likely reap a high cost in the turbulent and fast-changing decades ahead. History supposedly tells us that some things never change … but is that also just a perception?
PUBLISHER: Dr Andrew M Connery has been active online since 2001. Andrew completed his PhD at the UOW’s Sydney Business School in 2015 his doctoral dissertation ‘Overcoming Barriers to the Introduction of Perceived Disruptive Innovations in to Rigid Efficient Systems’. A B2B marketing practitioner and SEO/SEM consultant by profession his specialty area is overcoming local search engine bias.