New Study: Disruption Disrupted!

Dear Commons Community,

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article (subscription required) today citing a study by researchers at Dartmouth and the University of British Columbia calling into question Clayton Christensen’s innovative technology theories.  The article cites a new paper that may prove difficult to dismiss. Andrew A. King, a professor at the Dartmouth College business school, and Baljir Baatartogtokh, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, spent two years digging into disruption, interviewing scores of experts, trying to determine whether 77 of Christensen’s own examples conformed to his theory, studies involving big names like Ford, McDonald’s, and Google, along with lesser-known makers of blood-glucose meters and blended plastics. Only a tiny minority — 9 percent — fit Christensen’s criteria. Disruption is real but rare, King and Baatartogtokh conclude, which suggests that it’s at best a marginally useful explanation of how innovation happens. The article also comments:

“Disrupter” has become an accolade, and an industry has grown up around it. Fortune publishes a 40 under 40 list: “They’re all disrupting — and they’re all just getting started”; Inc. celebrates the “rising stars who are disrupting industries, making millions and building successful companies”; Forbes ranks “young disrupters, innovators, and entrepreneurs”; Vanity Fair has honored the “News Disrupters” shaping the future of media. When the University of Southern California unveiled a new undergraduate program in arts, technology, and innovation, the announcement declared: “The degree is in disruption.”

What happens when a theory is transformed into a globe-spanning explanation of nearly everything? Cue the backlash, which may have reached its apogee last October when The Atlantic announced the creation of an app that will replace “disrupt” with “bullshit” in your web browser.

Christensen has said that he regrets the name he gave his theory, telling the editor of the Harvard Business Review that he never thought people would “flexibly use an idea, twist it, and use it to justify whatever they wanted to do in the first place.”

Still, Christensen has made eccentric claims on his theory’s behalf. Among the areas he’s singled out as ripe for disruption: conflict resolution, the environment, politics, terrorism, and the military. In a co-authored article titled “Disrupting Hell,” he writes:

“It is time to introduce disruption into the domains of religion and ethics to restore Adam Smith’s notion of ‘moral sentiments.’ This requires a new tool kit of disruptive innovations initiated by fearless early moral adopters.”

The article was published by something called the Disruptor Foundation. Christensen is a co-founder. The foundation holds an annual event, the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards. Honorees include the former Fox News opinionator Glenn Beck and the Korean pop star Psy. (Remember “Gangnam Style”?)

In 2003, Christensen co-founded a consulting company, Innosight, now with about 100 employees. In 2007 he opened Rose Park Advisors, which applies the theory of disruption to investment opportunities. (His son Matthew is CEO.) There is also the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a think tank that, according to its website, is “dedicated to improving the world through disruptive innovation.” (His daughter Ann is president.) Christensen commands more than $40,000 per speech.

Kim Clark, the former Harvard Business School dean, is now president of Brigham Young University-Idaho. He first met Christensen, together with Mitt Romney, in an intro economics course at BYU in 1970. They remain close: Christensen is Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at Harvard, and Clark’s tenure at BYU-Idaho is singled out for praise in Christensen’s The Innovative University.

Asked if Christensen is at all to blame for how the theory has been distorted, his old friend thinks it over for a while. “Clay bears some responsibility for having lost control of his idea,” Clark finally says. “But it wasn’t like he sat down with a yellow pad and weighed the pros and cons of, say, going into health care. For him it was like, ‘We’ve got this problem, and I’ve got this idea that can illuminate this problem.’ ” After a brief pause, he adds: “Should Clay have stuck to business? There’s an argument for that. But it wouldn’t have been Clay.”

The entire article has much to offer.  Christensen’s disruption theory has indeed been twisted by many especially so-called education reformers who use it  to bash teachers and faculty.



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