Looking back and forward

It is notoriously tricky to both do things and tell about doing them. This is the case with the Disruption lab and its blog: running a start-up like entity within the university has kept us somewhat occupied last year, and the new decade sprang up somewhat unexpectedly. Or like we in Finland like to faithfully say each November, “the winter surprised the drivers”. So, it’s about time to both recapitulate our last year and take a peek into the futures.

Hockey-stick model of disruptions

First of all, we’ve been pondering a lot about the nature of disruptions. Especially in our time when change is the norm, when does that change stop being mere eternal background, and when are we dealing with something that we can honestly label a disruption? What we’ve found out is that while such events that we can retrospectively deem disruptive (judged by the wake of for example destroyed businesses or business models gone extinct) may at the onset seem sudden, they do not materialize from thin air.

Instead, disruptions build on the incremental change trajectories we ignore or tend to take for granted. We scholars like the concept of “socio-technical change”, because it highlights that whenever something bigger seems to shift, there are both human-related and technology-related elements that intertwine in driving the transformation. Disruptions emerge, when the lurking change trajectories on both the human and technological side have reached such a constellation, where a seemingly small or simple triggering event can spur the thus far creeping developments into an exponential development mode.

For us interested in understanding, anticipating and even driving disruptions this means that we focus our attention towards identifying such incremental change trajectories relevant in the contexts of our collaborators. In addition, we try to envision the types of triggering events, innovations, business models or other novelties that can change the trajectory from moderately linear to exponential.

So, essentially, we are constructing a “hockey-stick model” of disruption, and considering diverse strategies and capabilities required in encountering or driving disruptive change. While anticipation plays a role in all strategic actions, it seems that solid strategizing can no longer build on predictions but must take either an adaptive or transformative stance towards the environment. In other words, the successful firms must either excel in agility and reactions to external surprises, or they need to be able to modify their business environments to their liking.

From snoozing to awake: ethical dimensions of business

Another theme that has surfaced as one of the core elements in our lab, is the role of business in our contemporary society. It is unquestionable that the economic developments of the past century have contributed not only to the growth of the companies but also to an increasing material welfare of many. At the same time, it is equally unquestionable that the so called “negative externalities” of economic actions conducted according to the notion of “the business of business is business” are becoming utterly untenable in a limited planet. Additionally, while a notable portion of the humanity has through the developments in our economic systems been lifted from poverty, the current modus operandi isn’t doing enough to counter the polarization of wealth – and more importantly, well-being.

In other words, we need positive transformations to harness the mechanisms and might of economy into the service of greater good: the well-being of the whole planet and its people. This requires fundamental changes, disruptions, on the very macro-level of economy, but equally important are the firm level actions – and especially the everyday actions of each individual. We at the lab are deepening collaboration with likeminded individuals and firms, and seeking both theoretical understanding and very practical knowhow that can contribute to a more responsible and sustainable future of business.

What next?

Related to the discussion of the role of business in tomorrow’s society, is the theme of future of work. Situated as we are in the business school of a multidisciplinary university, we are naturally also interested in what types of skills, meta-skills, capabilities and mindsets should we be nurturing not only in our alma mater, but also more generally. Especially considering the impact of technological advances on even such expert work previously considered solely human terrain, what can and what should humans be doing as work in the not-too-distant future? And how can we in the universities prepare our young for that era?

Other themes never far from our agenda include monitoring the radical technological advances, pondering the implications of datafication and artificial intelligence, and executing firm level transformations in utilizing the new technological possibilities. Our ongoing projects range widely: from health-care and construction to mobility and fintech – to name a few – with collaborators representing big and small firms, NGOs and public sector. We launch into the new decade with such focus areas as strategizing, sustainability, capabilities and future of work, but being in the business of change, look forward to seeing how the list looks like come next January.

Despite the width of the contexts and the span of our research themes, our approach can be summarized simply: we are looking into such socio-economic-technological change that is not normal but (potentially) exponential, and as such disruptive. What we have learned the past years is that the disruptions are not to be feared, but should be embraced:

If ever there was a time in the human history where positive disruptions were called for, it is now.

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