This article explains what disruptive innovation is and how it can spread as a ”virus”, affecting disrupted companies in unrepairable ways.
As a person of simple words, I used to smile sceptically when hearing the term “disruptive”, proudly used by start-ups and well-established companies equally. My train thought was that technology has been evolving since the pre-historic humans, and nobody called the stone tools disruptive technology. Although, as I found later, they could.
Let’s start our journey with the person that coined the term disruptive innovation: Professor Clayton Christensen from Harvard Industry.
He defines it as: “a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors” (Disruptive innovation, u.d.). Christensen, in an interview, explains that it should not be understood as a “breakthrough innovation that makes technology a lot better”, but more as a product/technology that is made affordable and accessible, through its transformation, to a larger public (Christensen, 2012).
Professor Kai Riemer from the University of Sydney Business School explains (key note) that innovation normally occurs in incremental steps – doing a better version of what you are doing now – that is how we [often] organize innovation inside business. Disruptive innovation is to be understood as a technology that displaces the previous technologies, breaks the path and changes our collective life. For a better understanding, Riemer provides us with a case study from the musical industry. The type of innovation that happen in the musical industry was incremental – first we had the vinyl record, then we had tapes, then CDs. For record companies, it was difficult to predict new formats (like MP3) and their exchange on online platforms (like Napster). Riemer explains, that the challenge with disruptive innovation, is that it comes from another industry and changes the way we think about a specific product, service or technology. MP3s and Napster did change the way we thought and behaved about music. Suddenly, instead of gathering CDs, people could stream, share and listen to their favourite songs anytime and anywhere.
Nobody knew that we needed music in our pants pockets, but now it is integrated in our way of being and thinking about music. If someone would’ve painted this image to record companies some years ago, they wouldn’t have believed you – and it would’ve been very hard to predict.
Riemer has also developed a model for better understanding disruptive innovation, and it gives it an epistemic name: the VIRUS model, explaining that: “it (the name) captured the way in which the disruptive product or service is able to emerge slowly, steadily and unrecognized – when symptoms are first noticed by the wider market, it is often too late, and full-blown disease strikes.” (Riemer, 2015)
The opinions about disruptive innovation vary from it being declared “one of the most influential modern business ideas” (Aiming High, 2011) by The Economist, to that it can be averted (Gans, 2016) or to that “a cautious approach can be disastrous” (Cohen, 2016).
A key question in I4L is how companies can prepare to recognize and even facilitate disruptive innovations. This question will be tackled from various perspectives in our next blog posts.
Aiming High. (2011, June 30). The Economist.
Christensen, C. (2012, March 30). Disruptive Innovation Explained. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved May 22, 2017, from Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDrMAzCHFUU
Cohen, D. (2016, December 2). Why you shouldn’t wait. MIT Sloan Management Review.
Disruptive innovation. (n.d.). Retrieved from Clayton Christensen: http://www.claytonchristensen.com/key-concepts/
Gans, J. S. (2016, February 22). Keep Calm and Manage Disruption. MIT Sloan Management Review.
Riemer, K. (2015, March 23). Why it’s so hard to react to disruption – the VIRUS model. Retrieved from bbr (backed by research): https://byresearch.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/virus-model/