Cracks In The Foundation Of Disruptive Innovation

The overuse of Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation theory has rightly been criticized in education circles for years. I say rightly in that judging a non-commodity public good with the same theory as disk drives is a silly notion without some extensive analysis to back up that extrapolation. As Audrey Watters wrote in 2013:

Rather, my assigning “myth” to “disruptive innovation” is meant to highlight the ways in which this narrative has been widely accepted as unassailably true. No doubt (as a Harvard professor) Christensen has faced very little skepticism or criticism about his theory about the transformation of industries— why, it’s as if The Innovator’s Dilemma were some sort of sacred text.
Helping to enhance its mythic status, the storytelling around “disruptive innovation” has taken on another, broader and looser dimension as well, as the term is now frequently invoked in many quarters to mean things quite different from Christensen’s original arguments in The Innovator’s Dilemma.

Referring back to Audrey’s posts, Jim Groom and Brian Lamb made efforts to “reclaim innovation” in 2014:

To understand much of the disconnect between higher education and innovation, we should take a look at innovation’s unruly cousin: disruption. Certainly, when surveying the rapid pace of change in digital and networked technologies and assessing the wreckage of organizations and industries that have, in one way or another, been swept aside, disruption as a descriptive term is not without merit. But unless we are prepared to rebuild from the wreckage and create something that represents a meaningful advance, it’s difficult to see the value in disruption for its own sake.

Audrey Watters has noted the essentially apocalyptic flavor of what she describes as “the myth and the millennialism of disruptive innovation” – mythic in the sense that it prophesies “the destruction of the old and the ascension of the new” and constitutes a narrative that “has been widely accepted as unassailably true.” When applied to education, disruptive innovation promises nothing less than “the end of school as we know it.”

Martin Weller this week explored the assumptions behind disruptive innovation to see what that would mean in practice in education, based on a “disruption in education” event, assuming people meant what they said when using this terminology:

I didn’t watch any of the event, maybe there were some very interesting presentations. But by labelling it Disruptors, the intention is made clear. Disruption, as set out by Christensen, is in fact very rare. I think it only actually applies about 1% of the time that term is claimed. But Christensen wouldn’t get rich by talking about a rare occurrence so has pushed the idea that it happens everywhere. The replacement of analogue photography by digital is the classic example. If you want to get good stock photos on internet I recommend visiting That really was disruption and swept away a whole industry. When it does happen, the thing about disruption is that it is absolutely brutal. A whole industry is replaced by a new one. This is not making improvements (that is the sustaining technology), it is completely destroying a sector and replacing it with a new one. It is an extinction event.

These are all valid and important critiques, and the underlying theme of disruptive innovation being too easily accepted is an important one. Last year Jill Lepore wrote the most widely-known critique in the New Yorker (with the subtitle “What the gospel of innovation gets wrong”):

Disruptive innovation as a theory of change is meant to serve both as a chronicle of the past (this has happened) and as a model for the future (it will keep happening). The strength of a prediction made from a model depends on the quality of the historical evidence and on the reliability of the methods used to gather and interpret it. Historical analysis proceeds from certain conditions regarding proof. None of these conditions have been met.

“The Innovator’s Dilemma” consists of a set of handpicked case studies, beginning with the disk-drive industry, which was the subject of Christensen’s doctoral thesis, in 1992.

Now there is even more evidence that the theory of disruptive innovation has some serious cracks in the foundation. In September’s MIT Sloan Management Review (you know, the other side of Cambridge) Dartmouth Professor Andrew King and UBC graduate student Baljir Baatartogtokh published the results of a study they led on the original claims in Christensen’s books. Titled “How Useful Is The Theory of Disruptive Innovation?”, the short answer is not very, even for the case studies claimed in the books.

The method of the study was to look at the 77 case studies used in the Innovator’s Dilemma and the Innovator’s Solution that underpin disruption, and then interview experts in the field to see if the case studies met the conditions of the theory itself. Of the 79 “experts”:

Fifty-eight percent of the surveyed respondents were academics; 18% were nonacademic authors of book-length historical analyses; 10% were financial analysts of the industries involved; and 14% were participants in the industries.

The four key elements of the theory are:

  1. Incumbents are improving along a trajectory of innovation
  2. The pace of sustaining innovation overshoots customer needs
  3. Incumbents have the capability to respond but fail to exploit it
  4. Incumbents flounder as a result of the disruption

Four elements DI

One interesting note is that the interviewers had to avoid using the term “disruptive innovation” until the end of their interviews to avoid tainting the discussion. The terminology is so overused that it even distorts the discussion of the theory itself.

Even Christensen’s underlying assumption that “objective function of management should be to maximize shareholder value” came into question when applied to education:

This clarified objective is problematic for the 9% of cases we examined that represent nonprofit organizations or publicly regulated utilities. For example, an author and expert on higher education noted that the “access mission of community colleges often runs counter to what presidents or other leaders might do to cut costs or improve completion outcomes.” This expert adds: “That makes it not such a great example for the theory [because] as a mission driven institution, they are responsible to the public and a higher calling.”

The article then describes the results of how each of the 77 case studies fit within the four key elements of the theory, and the end result was that only 9% of the provided case studies fit all four. It seems that the case studies were cherry picked to highlight one element at a time, but the cohesive theory of disruptive innovation might not be backed up even by its own data.

Analysis DI

The whole article is worth reading. You can access it for free either by joining the MIT Sloan Management Review for a free 14-day period or by forking over $6.50.

In the meantime, the conclusion of the article should be a lesson anytime someone in education uses “disruption” as a justification or description of what they do.

In summary, stories about disruptive innovation can provide warnings of what may happen, but they are no substitute for critical thinking. High-level theories can give managers encouragement, but they are no replacement for careful analysis and difficult choices.

If there is any one field where this conclusion applies more than others, it is in education with mission driven institutions, non-commodity outcomes, and poorly-understood basics on how to even define learning.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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