My wife is a project manager who is responsible for business operations at our local high school. She hired some people this summer to process and distribute new textbooks within the school, but they hadn't finished the job and school was about to open, so she needed someone to come in at the last minute and help get the work done. More specifically, someone who would follow her instructions and would not expect to get paid. So I spent a long Saturday with her at the school, schlepping pallets and boxes of new textbooks to the classrooms, getting everything in place in time for the start of the new school year.
I wasn't happy with the work (the school was hot, the textbooks heavy) and more than once I thought wistfully about Steve Jobs, who according to biographer Walter Isaacson, had targeted the school textbook business as an "$8 billion a year industry ripe for digital destruction." Targeting textbooks seemed like a good idea to me because not only are they big and heavy and expensive--they don't update easily, either. Unfortunately, Jobs didn't live long enough to disrupt the textbook industry, but others are on the same path and, selfishly, I wish them well! Check out The Object Formerly Known As The Textbook for an interesting look at how textbook publishers and software companies and educational institutions are juggling for position as textbooks evolve into courseware. Also, As More Schools Embrace Tablets, Do Textbooks Have a Fighting Chance? takes a look at how The Los Angeles Unified School District—second largest school district in the country—is equipping students with iPads and delivering textbooks digitally in a partnership with giant book publisher Pearson.
Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator's Dilemma, is credited with coming up with the term "disruptive innovation," which he defined 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.
These days we tend to associate disruptive innovation with a new or improved product or service that surprises the market, especially established, industry-leading competitors, and increases customer accessibility while lowering costs. The notion is appealing, and it makes for exciting business adventure tales featuring scrappy, innovative underdogs overcoming entrenched, clueless market leaders. Of course disruptive innovation has been happening for a long time, even if it was called something else, but lately technology has made it easier and cheaper for upstart firms to take on industries they think are "ripe for digital destruction."
In her recent article The Disruption Machine, Harvard professor and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore squinted hard at disruption theory, though:
Ever since “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” everyone is either disrupting or being disrupted. There are disruption consultants, disruption conferences, and disruption seminars. This fall, the University of Southern California is opening a new program: “The degree is in disruption,” the university announced.
By the way, USC's Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation is in fact opening this year and will focus on critical thinking with plans, according to the Academy website, to "...empower the next generation of disruptors and professional thought leaders who will ply their skills in a global area." And yes, that is Dr. Dre's name on the Academy!
But there are others who believe we have now entered a decidedly more treacherous innovation environment, one that Josh Linkner in The Road to Reinvention says is forcing companies to systematically and continually challenge and reinvent themselves in order to survive. His fundamental question is this: "Will you disrupt, or be disrupted?" And Paul Nunes and Larry Downes, Accenture folks who wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review Magazine in 2013 entitled Big Bang Disruption (they have a new book on the same topic, summarized by Accenture here) warn of a new type of innovation which is more than disruptive--it's devastating:
...a Big Bang Disruptor is both better and cheaper from the moment of creation. Using new technologies...Big Bang Disruptors can destabilize mature industries in record time, leaving incumbents and their supply-chain partners dazed and devastated.
Should CEOs be worried? When Mikhail Gorbachev visited Harvard in 2007 and said “If you don’t move forward, sooner or later you begin to move backward”, he was talking about politics and multilateral nuclear treaties, not companies, but the warning certainly could have been directed at company CEOs. That message, refreshed to incorporate the disruptive and big bang innovation threats that have emerged since then, seems a bit unsettling: If you run a company and you aren't dedicating resources to continually scanning the marketplace for threats and improving and reinventing your business, if you are instead taking a "business as usual" approach, you are at risk of being marginalized or supplanted by competitors who will bring new products, services, experiences, efficiencies, cost structures and insights to your customers. Maybe not this year, or next year, but sometime soon. It's not a question of whether it will happen, but when. Thus Linkner's question, restated: Will you disrupt yourself, or be disrupted by someone else?
Of course some industries, like property casualty insurance, may not be high on anyone's "ripe for digital destruction" list, so maybe there's no need for insurance company CEOs to worry. Except perhaps about Google and Amazon. I keep thinking back to Blockbuster CEO Jim Keyes' comments to The Motley Fool in 2008: "Neither RedBox nor Netflix are even on the radar screen in terms of competition." You know the rest of the story, which illustrates the real-life consequences of an incumbent underestimating and then becoming "dazed and devastated" by a competitor.