Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Disruptive Innovation != The Inevitable March of Progress

I have been following my friends' tweets from NECC -- it is pretty much the only thing I use Twitter for -- which led me to Scott McLeod's talk on Educational Leadership in an Era of Disruptive Innovation, although I watched the K-12 Online conference version, which is apparently similar.

I'm not very impressed with Scott's presentation. Here's what I think he's doing:

  • Conflating "disruptive innovation" with progress in general.
  • Overstating the extent to which disruptive innovation destroys incumbent companies and organizations.
  • Presenting centuries long differences in educational philosophy as a singular line of progress from traditional to innovative.
  • Concluding that because progress is inevitable and destructive, and the things he likes are progress, you'd better get on board the train.

Conflating "disruptive innovation" with progress in general.

Listening to Scott's talk, it isn't clear what kind of technological innovation is not "disruptive." He asserts, for example, that the progression of LP -> cassette -> CD -> mp3 is a series of disruptive innovations. The cassette was somewhat disruptive, in that it opened up a new low-end market segment, but it certainly didn't displace the LP, and the CD wasn't disruptive to the market, it was a textbook sustaining innovation of the industry built around the LP. The CD was an improved LP which boosted that economic model (major labels, record stores, radio, etc.) for almost twenty years. The disruptive innovation was mp3 -- a low-quality, low-cost, margin-destroying innovation that wrecked the existing market.

But in Scott's examples, it all just seems like the march of progress: something new is invented, and it isn't very good at first, and then it gets better, and "disrupts" the market and takes over. That's pretty much it in his telling, but that's pretty banal. In Christensen's books, "disruptive" innovations are of a certain type. One excellent contemporary example is netbooks. Just a few years ago, nobody wanted to make a laptop under about $900, because they didn't think there was a market for a laptop with obviously "worse" performance than the then standard $900+ models, and they didn't want to ruin their profit margins. They wanted to make $400 a pop off $900 laptops, not $50 each on $200 netbooks. So finally, Asus, formerly just a motherboard and component vendor said "screw it" and put out a cheap netbook and it took off like a shot. It disrupted the market and forced everyone else to put out cheap netbooks or let Asus eat their lunch. But it is not "better" technology. It is not innovation in the traditional sense. That's the whole idea. That's why they started writing these damn books in the first place. It is innovation that is not "innovative."

Overstating the extent to which disruptive innovation destroys incumbent companies and organizations.

Scott's longest example is the disruption of wired telephony by wireless. Hm... let's see, if I want to get a cell phone who am I likely to call... Verizon? Sprint? Deutch Telekom? AT&FrackingT? Disruptive innovation doesn't necessarily knock out the incumbent players. Linux disrupts Windows, but Microsoft is still doing fine. MySQL disrupts Oracle and Oracle bought MySQL (and Sun). And Christensen cites numerous examples of companies that respond to disruptive innovation by moving successfully upmarket, ceding the low-end and competing on quality. If market disruption was an inevitable force of nature, Apple wouldn't have made it out of the 1980's, and we'd all drive Hyundais by now.

Presenting centuries long differences in educational philosophy as a singular line of progress from traditional to innovative.

It is convenient to present education as a factory model monolith, because it allows you to present individualized, student-focused, or just progressive education as "innovative" but it isn't historically accurate, any more than it would be accurate to present, say, socialism as a new innovation. The US isn't very socialist right now, and while folding in some more socialism would be a good idea, it wouldn't be a new, innovative, "disruptive" idea. It would be a change in philosophy, from one well-established, competing approach toward another well-established, competing approach. Same with standardized, traditional education (writ large) vs. individual, progressive approaches (in general). Argue on the merits, not novelty.

Concluding that because progress is inevitable and destructive, and the things he likes are progress, you'd better get on board the train.

I'm critical of this kind of approach not because I think Scott and I have very different ideas of what good schools look like. I just think he's making a very sloppy argument, and I'd like my side to do better. At the K-12 level, I don't think that most things that are being presented as "disruptive" are actually so (post-secondary is a completely different ballgame). I see no reason to think that, say, online learning is not a sustaining innovation for current institutions, and to the extent it is disruptive, I don't think it will inevitably destroy our current system. It may simply drive it upmarket (online strip-mall holding pens for the plebes, good schools for the 'burbs, etc).


Michael B. Horn said...

Good post. I enjoyed Scott's presentation in the way it boiled down some themes from Disrupting Class quickly, but I think you're right and raise some good and important criticisms of it. A fad does seem to be developing that conflates anything new or innovative as a disruptive innovation, which risks undermining the actual very specific meaning of the phenomenon. This is dangerous in a few respects.

Also, have you read Seeing What's Next? It has a good analysis of why wireless was implemented in sustaining, not disruptive, fashion in the U.S. and hence we see the outcomes we have seen. I'm actually re-reading it right now.

Wesley Fryer said...

Good thoughts and push back here, Tom.

Do you think 1:1 computing can qualify as a disruptive innovation in schools, when student laptops are not totally locked down and a project-based approach is taken across the school?

What do you see in the higher ed space that could be considered disruptive? I definitely see most university-level (and K-12 for that matter) uses of course management systems as sustaining rather than disruptive.

Tom Hoffman said...


Thanks for your kind words. I haven't read Seeing What's Next?, but like anyone who has spent time overseas, I'm pretty conscious of how un-innovative our wireless market is.


I haven't actually read Disrupting Class either, but I have read The Innovator's Solution, but I assume Christensen & Horn discuss how for many students, college is a course and credential delivery system, with high overhead for things like dorms, gyms, dining halls, etc. The obvious opportunity for disruption is online delivery of courses and credentials with much lower overhead and no geographic constraint. Using an LMS at a regular college isn't disruptive. It's a value-add (when it is not an annoying distraction).

As far as 1-to-1 and project based learning as being "disruptive," the only reason you'd want to make that argument is if you think it is a compliment to call something a "disruptive innovation." That "disruptive innovations are inherently better than "sustaining innovations."

Technology enabled progressive education is a significant, expensive improvement of schooling. It doesn't fit the profile of a "disruptive innovation" but that's ok.

You have to remember that "disruptive innovation" is usually about going cheaper, downmarket, looking for potential market segments that aren't being served at all. Despite what people outside the system might think (and of course there is some waste), there is very little space to undercut public education. It really is done on the cheap already.

Bill Kerr said...

First, we have to argue about "what is progress?" The opposable thumb was a neat disruption.

The alan kay quote which follows this post implies that profound ideas about fundamentals have the potential to disrupt - that fundamentals are disruptive because they are often forgotten, so they are both sustaining and disruptive

Marshall Berman points out that capitalism is nihilist - good things are destroyed as well and so it's hard to work out progress, eg. blogging and twitter enhances communication but destroys slow deep thinking, an important fundamental for progress

Although many things are sustained I would argue that it is the coming into existence of new things and discernment the fundamentals (now and old) and fads that does represent progress. So I think your heading might be right for this particular case but wrong in general

quibble: Linux disrupts MS but MS has a long way to fall

Perhaps the problem with Christensen is that (cf Kay) he doesn't have a profound understanding of what and the how of learning - that this particular disruption (individualised technology mediated learning) is a good one but that he hasn't gone into it deeply enough? His theory sort of works for commerce where the goal is relatively simple (make a profit) but education is far more complex (businesses which fail disappear, children who fail don't)

I wasn't sure whether you were criticising SM's inadequate representation of CC or whether there was an implied criticism of CC in there as well. Also important to note that there are other disruption theorists (eg. Schumpeter - "Creative destruction" and Marx - "Everything solid melts into air") and they might do it better

I haven't read Christensen's books but have listened to some of his talks and reviews / commentary about his books

Tom Hoffman said...


My point is that Christensen and Horn have a very specific and narrow (and valuable) definition of "disruptive innovation" and that Scott is stretching it to the point where it isn't very useful.

Bill Kerr said...

I listened to Scott's presentation again. Wrt your second point I don't think he equates disruption of the old market with destruction of incumbents, eg. in one spot he talks about IBM going against the trend

I think what both he and CC are saying is that disruption innovation is a natural law and that it is difficult (but not impossible) for incumbents to adapt

Wrt your third point Clayton Christensen presents current education as a monolithic factory model in this 5 minute promotional video

aside: Christensen also relies very heavily on multiple intelligences rhetoric (as a straw man to promote his individualised learning) which I regard as discredited

I thought I noticed some earlier blogs which were critical of CC, so I'm confused about you highlighting the differences of two men in a leaky boat.

Tom Hoffman said...


I just think that Christensen is right about innovation in general, probably right about what's coming in post-secondary education, and stretches it a step too far in speculating about K-12.

And Scott stretches it to fit his standard rap about school change.

Even then, it isn't like I think there's no future for online learning. I just don't think it is particularly "disruptive" in K-12.

Scott McLeod said...

Hi Tom,

As usual, thanks for your thoughtful criticism and reflection. I am in Pennsylvania visiting family and thus don't have a copy of the book with me. However, I'll do my best to respond here from what I remember...

As I think Michael Horn would concur, I'd guess that about 95% of my presentation was taken straight from his and Christensen's book (and from The Innovator's Dilemma). The folks that I know that both read the book and saw my presentation said that I did a good job of summarizing and staying true to the book. So I'm not sure I strayed too far from what Christensen and Horn said themselves...

I would encourage you to read Disrupting Class. It's an excellent thought piece and I think that whatever concerns you have about my presentation would be better grounded after you've actually read the book. Just to pick one instance, for example, neither Christensen nor I said that 'online learning' is the disruptive innovation. 'Personalized learning' is...

It may be that some of the examples I chose to illustrate the concept of 'disruptive innovation' are somewhat off the mark. I'm admittedly not as fluent in the concept as Christensen is, of course. But I think I tried to stay true to the idea of 'game-changing' innovations. Although my memory may be off the mark, I believe Christensen used the tape-to-CD, mainframe-to-laptop-computer, and landline-to-cell-phone examples in the book.

So read the book if you get a chance. And then let us know if you still feel the same way about my presentation afterward.

Thanks! Hope you're having a great summer!