I’ve been hearing about disruptive technologies for a few years now, and I’ve even used the term myself in various presentations. I probably started using it before I knew its origin, that is, Clayton Christensen’s 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma. Now with Christensen’s newest book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, on my reading list I decided I should read the original and draw some of my own conclusions before I read his thoughts on education.
I always try to take notes as I read through a book that might have some implications for my daily work and thinking. Sometimes, however, my best intentions fall short so I thought this time around I’d post some notes and reflections online chapter by chapter. If you’d like to join me in reading this book, go ahead a order a copy. It will take me a while to work my way through it. You’ve got plenty of time.
Christensen begins the book with a rather detailed description of innovation and failure in the disk drive industry. For the same reason geneticists study fruit flies, Christensen explains that the rapid pace of change in the disk drive industry makes it an ideal test bed for studying how successful organizations can fail in the face of disruptive change. I won’t go into the details of the drive technology or the specific changes that shaped the industry over the last 30 years or so.
There are two types of technological change that matter. Christensen calls them sustaining and disrupting changes.
This study of technological change over the history of the disk drive industry revealed two types of technology change, each with very different effects on the industry’s leaders. Technologies of the first sort sustained the industry’s rate of improvements in the product performance (total capacity and recording density were the two most common measures) and ranged in difficulty from incremental to radical. The industry’s dominant firms always led in developing and adopting these technologies. By contrast, innovations of the second sort disrupted or redefined performance trajectories—and consistently resulted in the failure of the industry’s leading firms.
My first thought is that our current system of K–12 education is clearly engaged in sustaining innovation. Document cameras and PowerPoint instead of overhead projectors, for example, are basically more of the same—better performance and incremental feature enhancements—rather than truly disruptive innovation.
It turns out the disruptive innovations weren’t at all obvious if companies were concerned about what their customers wanted. In fact, the really disruptive stuff usually represents a downgrade for existing customers of the dominant firms.
Generally disruptive innovations were technologically straightforward, consisting of off-the-shelf components put together in a product architecture that was often simpler than prior approaches. They offered less of what customers in established markets wanted and so could rarely be initially employed there. They offered a different package of attributes valued only in emerging markets remote from, and unimportant to, the mainstream.
So the dominant firms failed not because of inferior technology; they were almost always well-managed, visionary organizations. Their problem was that one of their competitors took a new, nearly always inferior, technology and created a new market.
Rather, the 5.25-inch drive manufacturers seem to have been misled by their customers, notably IBM and its direct competitors and resellers, who themselves seemed as oblivious as Seagate to the potential benefits and possibilities of portable computing and the new disk drive architecture that might facilitate it.
It was obvious to IBM, Seagate, and their desktop computer customers that the 3.5-inch hard drives were inferior in speed, capacity, and cost. What they failed to appreciate was that customers of the emerging portable computer market were willing to sacrifice some performance for the smaller size and increased ruggedness of the new 3.5-inch drives. The disruptive innovations don’t tend to show themselves in existing markets. They enable new products and markets that the dominant firms and their customers can’t see.
But the problem established firms seem unable to confront successfully is that of downward vision and mobility, in terms of the trajectory map.
If we can draw any parallels between the hard disk industry and K–12 education—and that’s a big if—we have to ask whether there are any emerging markets that the dominant firms (our regular school districts) and their customers (students, parents, and communities) are currently undervaluing? Could it be online learning? Most school people I know consider online learning vastly inferior to traditional face-to-face learning. Perhaps the online technologies that are flourishing now and finding little traction in traditional educational institutions will eventually turn out to be the disruptive force that gives traditional schooling a run for its money (literally).