Is Disruptive Technology an irrelevance?

Is Disruptive Technology an irrelevance? 14th April 2016

IT people get very excited about disruptive technology; but is it of real importance to business, or just a geek obsession?

Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School first used the term back in the 1990s, distinguishing between ‘sustaining’ technologies, which provide an incremental improvement on well-established applications, and ‘disruptive’ technologies. Disruptive technologies are new and often initially flaky, but that have the potential to transform the field in which they’re applied.

It’s almost a truism that disruptive technologies take most observers by surprise. They come from left field and while a few early adopters will rave about them, most ignore them. This tends to be one crucial period of awareness.

Those who spot that a disruptive technology is about to go large can be better prepared and potentially dominate in their own segment of a market. The chances of doing this are small, and it’s often a startup that has the flexibility and the willingness to take the risks involved in taking a leap in the dark.

Being the early dominator of a disruptive technology is probably inaccessible to most well-established organisations. Unless you run an organisation where small sections of the company operate as independent skunkworks that can realistically emulate a startup, the chances are you aren’t going to become the dominant force. The next Amazon or Google is unlikely to be an existing, well-established business.

Jump on the bandwagon or miss the boat?

However, there is another point on the curve of acceptance of a disruptive technology that provides a real danger for organisations. This is when the technology has become reasonably widespread, and not recognising it or working with it can cripple a business. The smartphone with mobile internet is arguably one of the most wide-reaching of recent disruptive technologies. The once dominant phone company Nokia has demonstrated just how damaging coming too late to the field can be, once the technology is well-established.

Even though you may not be involved in a technology business, as a disruptive technology becomes mainstream it is important to ensure you have assessed its impact on your market and made appropriate changes. Sticking with the example of mobile internet on smartphones, it was initially considered a nice-to-have to set up websites that were ‘mobile responsive’. Now, the companies that have failed to do so – and there is a surprising number – are suffering. Especially if their customer base includes the generation who do the majority of their internet access via phone.

Disruptive technologies don’t have to shake your business, nor do they mean it is essential to be an early adopter. But careful monitoring of what is happening – in, for example, cloud computing and the internet of things – is valuable to ensure the wide adoption of a disruptive technology does not leave your business dangerously exposed.

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Brian Clegg

Author: Brian Clegg

Brian has MAs in natural sciences from Cambridge and operational research at Lancaster. He spent 17 years at British Airways working on OR and IT and left in 1994 to set up a company providing business creativity training. He is now primarily a science & technology writer with 30 books in print.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view and opinion of Curo Talent.

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