Observing Thinking

Observing Thinking
Observing Thinking

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Disruptive Technology

Just when I was getting sick and tired of hearing the word, “disruption” associated with internet technology, I stumbled across a New Yorker June 23 article “The Disruption Machine” by Jill Lepore The gist of the article is a summary, analysis and criticism of Clayton M. Christensen’s book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma” which makes the seemingly paradoxical claim that, “doing the right thing is the wrong thing”. I also learned that the term “innovation” was not always associated with the idea of “progress” (which is a good thing). Innovation used to be associated with novelty which made it seem somewhat frivolous. Even the father of our country, George Washington was reputed to have said, “Beware of innovation in politics”. So it becomes necessary to more precisely define what we mean by innovation and especially the new buzzword: Disruptive Innovation.

From Wikipedia we find these definitions:

“Innovation is finding a better way of doing something. Innovation can be viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market needs.This is accomplished through more effective products, processes, services, technologies, or ideas that are readily available to markets, governments and society. The term innovation can be defined as something original and, as a consequence, new, that "breaks into" the market or society.

A disruptive innovation is an innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network (over a few years or decades), displacing an earlier technology. The term is used in business and technology literature to describe innovations that improve a product or service in ways that the market does not expect, typically first by designing for a different set of consumers in a new market and later by lowering prices in the existing market.”

So what then is “disruptive technology””? This term is pretty much a synonym for “disruptive innovation” as described above; however, I would add that for a technology to be truly disruptive, not only would it adhere to that definition, it should sweep through society on a tidal wave of change.

For example, Air Conditioning changed society by massively increasing worker productivity which, in turn propagated prosperity throughout all levels of society. Atlanta, Georgia was a one-horse town before A/C; even Washington DC as late as the 1950s would dismiss all government workers when the temperature exceeded 100 degrees.( I remember laying awake, unable to sleep, one Halloween night in DC when the temp reached that mark.) Another common example is the Personal Computer. When the PC first appeared in the late 1970s, it was purchased only by hobbyists who could build them from kits much like the early automobiles were aimed at those who could put them together and repair them on their own. And, of course the PC allowed the middle-class consumer to connect to the Internet . Until that time, the Internet was a government-funded project using large mainframe computers used exclusively by scientists to share their research. While that’s still true, the Internet has expanded to provide infotainment (like just TV), business transactions such as shopping, banking and investing and social networks like Twitter,Tumblr and Facebook --- as well as planning and organizing political revolutions worldwide!

The other important feature of disruptive innovation or technology is that there must also be a “disruptee” --- the technology or enterprise that has been disrupted. For example, the PC disruptees were the industries that produced only midsize and large mainframe computer systems (IBM almost went out of business during that period.)

Another example is Henry Ford’s Model T automobile where the disruptee was not really the Horse and Carriage but the already existing automobiles that were too expensive for the average American. That and the fact that it changed the transportation market (e.g. train travel declined) as well as the social fabric (families no longer were so rooted to the place where they were born), the birth of suburbia and creation of all the attendant businesses --- not to mention the growth of nonrenewable fuels leading to climate change.

More examples of the two players in the Disruptive Technology game (which includes Wikipedia itself) can be found at:


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