Disruption disrupted?

It was a big week for disruption. Jill Lepore’s widely tweeted and read piece in the New Yorker argued that as a theory “disruptive innovation” lacks predictive power, and that Clayton Christensen ignored a lot of the facts in the case-studies it is based on. That’s a pretty strong accusation. The anti-disruption crowd popped champagne corks and started the celebrations, and a part of me was happy that finally there was a counter-point to the pervasive rhetoric on disruption.

However, it is a counter-point to the rhetoric and not to the theory. And after reading more articles including the notes from an impromptu interview with Christensen himself I feel like I don’t have enough of the facts to judge the merits of the case-studies, and I am less confident that Jill Lepore really does either.

In my personal experience, trying to make changes and develop new “innovative” solutions, doesn’t work in large institutions. There is too much inertia, too much “this is the way we’ve always done it” and too much fear to lose the current customers. When I worked at BMG Entertainment in the mid 90s, I remember attending a conference on technology and the music industry, where everyone just pretended nothing would change. Then Napster happened. And then iTunes. And now Spotify. I’m not taking sides here, but to pretend that the Internet has not completely disrupted the music industry is foolish. And the same effect can be seen in other fields that rely on extracting value from content, like news, or textbooks.

When we started Peer 2 Peer University/P2PU I tried to convince the University I worked for at the time to let me host it there. They declined. The idea of letting anyone get involved in facilitating and offering online courses was considered to dangerous for the reputation of the institution. Since then a lot has happened in the way we learn online. Stack Overflow is the de facto training ground for software developers and Khan Academy (and many similar efforts) have proven that high-quality learning content can effectively be produced by “amateurs”.

The real problem is that “disruption” has become the defense and guise for unethical business practices. It was never intended this way, and it is unfair to blame Christensen for the misdeeds of business people, who would have just found some other slogan to use for exploiting others.

For what it’s worth, I met Christensen in person a few years ago, and found him genuine and truly interested in understanding the process of innovation. And I admit I’m easily influenced by my gut feeling ;-)