The word disruption was adopted to management literature in late 1990’s, when Clayton Christensen coined a concept and a theory of disruptive innovation. He was interested in finding out why successful companies sometimes fail seemingly overnight, and why that seems to be happening at an increasing pace. If you’ve read (about) disruptive innovation theory, you might be wondering how does the three-component model of disruption explained in my first blog relate to that. In this post I’ll explain that.
First, it should be understood that the word “disruptive” in the disruptive innovation theory (DIT) is an attribute: the theory is about exploring certain types of technological and business model innovations and the firm and market actions that drive or react to them. In contrast, we use “disruption” as a self-standing noun, a label to capture a phenomenon with a larger scope than firms and markets.
The outlines of disruptive innovation theory are the following: a potentially disruptive innovation enters the markets from the fringes, appealing to non-mainstream customers that the incumbent firms are not interested in, and therefore is not perceived a threat by them. As the incumbents fail to understand the appeal of the innovation, it has room to grow and develop in ways that also the bulk of the customers begin to find increasingly appealing. By the time the incumbent catches up with the changes in the customer behavior, it may be too late for it to respond, resulting in it losing its market share. The research on the phenomenon has made notable advances in understanding both the nature of the innovations capable of doing that, and the types of responses that an incumbent could, should or should not make.
The relevance of disruptive innovation theory to the corona disruption
At a first glance, the ongoing corona disruption has little to do with the phenomenon described above. We are being disrupted, not because of an innovation relevant in specific markets, but because of an exogenous shock impacting the very fundaments of our economic systems.
However, there is an interesting insight and interpretation of the disruptive innovation theory that bridges the firm and market level phenomenon explored in DIT, and the global level phenomena we are all now experiencing. It was made by Ezra Zuckerman from MIT. In his view, the very core of DIT is the “unexpectedly bridgeable chasm”.
The “chasm” that Zuckerman mentions refers to a classic book about technology adoption by Geoffrey Moore. In it Moore distinguishes between five types of technology users, who adopt new technology at different times of the technology life cycle. After innovators, the early adopters come aboard, followed by early majority, then late majority and finally laggards. But the technology adoption is not a seamless process: there is a chasm in between the early adopters and early majority, and the success of any technology diffusion depends on whether or not it manages to cross the chasm.
There are myriad examples of innovations that have fallen to the bottom of the chasm, which is commonly perceived as notoriously difficult to bridge. The insight of Zuckerman spells out a most interesting feature of the disruptive innovation theory: it highlights events and processes when the chasm is bridged with surprising ease and speed, resulting in rapid changes in the behavior of the majority.
DIT explores the reasons for the rapid appearance of bridges from the perspective of the innovations being diffused and the firms and markets changing in shape due to the bridges built. But what we are seeing now in the current corona pandemic is that the bridges can materialize also due to external forces that make it mandatory for the majority to cross the chasm in any way they can – be it by bridges, jumping, ropes, cumbersome climbing down and up, or flying.
Some leapfrogged chasms
Corona disruption makes us all to cross the chasm in terms of remote working, enforcing the adoption of teleconferencing technologies once and for all. We have to cross the chasm of remote teaching and learning, both as teachers and students, embracing the available technologies regardless of our initial apprehension or doubts. We are jumping the chasm of online grocery shopping and home delivery, stepping over the already very narrow chasm of using available technologies to provide social contacts between distant family members, colleagues or friends.
In China, the individual level surveillance technologies are crossing the already narrowed chasm of lingering resistance. In South Korea, the same technologies are leapfrogging the longer chasm, being introduced in the first place in the extent warranted by the need to curb the spread of the virus.
These have happened already, during the very short time that has passed since the globe took the virus seriously. But then there are some interesting chasms that the continuing crisis may well still make us jump.
Will we jump the chasm to basic income? Long discussed globally in the context of changing work, will the mass unemployment and waves of bankruptcy of near future swing the social security systems over the chasm of political debates and practical detail bickering?
Will we jump the chasm of global collaboration in terms of joining our efforts to fight any potential new viruses, as suggested by Harari in his interesting article? While globalization is partially to blame for the onslaught of the current pandemic, humanity has suffered the likes also in times of horses and sailing boats. Now the global collaboration seems our best bet in giving the humanity a chance in the war against viruses.
Will we jump the chasm to genuine sharing economy? As individuals are turning towards one another for help in times of need, will the neighbor-aid solutions become mainstream?
I still don’t have the magical crystal ball. However I prophesy that by the time this is over and we have entered the new normal, we have crossed such a number of chasms that the whole of our economy seems nigh unrecognizable. Big changes can happen in surprisingly short time.