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Clayton Christensen disruption theory

4 Keys to Understanding Clayton Christensen’s Theory of Disruptive Innovation

Posted by Chris Larson on November 15, 2016

Disruptive innovation has been a buzzword since Clayton Christensen coined it back in the mid 1990s.

Here are four key things to remember when assessing whether the next new company is likely to disrupt your business:

1. The common understanding of disruption IS NOT disruption according to Christensen

A great article by Ilan Mochari discusses the misuse of the word disruption when referring to business. As he clarifies, disruption is “what happens when the incumbents are so focused on pleasing their most profitable customers that they neglect or misjudge the needs of their other segments.” 

2. Disruption can be low-end or new-market

These differences are laid out in Disruptive Strategy with Clayton Christensen. Low-end disruption refers to businesses that come in at the bottom of the market and serve customers in a way that is “good enough.” In other words, they put their focus on where the greater profit margins are.

The main difference between the two types of disruption lies in the fact that low-end disruption focuses on overserved customers, and new-market disruption focuses on underserved customers.

3. Christensen’s disruption is a process, rather than a product or service

When innovative new products or services – iPhone, Tesla’s electric cars, Uber, and the like – launch and grab the attention of the press and consumers, do they qualify as disruptors in their industries? Writing in Harvard Business Review, Christensen cautions us that it takes time to determine whether an innovator’s business model will succeed.


4. Choose your battles wisely

If you are a current incumbent and want to be on the lookout for a possibly disruptive emerging business, the clarification of what disruption is certainly helps.

Understanding disruption is also helpful if you are looking for opportunities to start or scale your business



more on disruption in this IMS blog

disruption innovation

Michael Porter, a professor at the Harvard Business School. The scholar who in some respects became his successor, Clayton M. Christensen, entered a doctoral program at the Harvard Business School in 1989 and joined the faculty in 1992. Christensen was interested in why companies fail. In his 1997 book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” he argued that, very often, it isn’t because their executives made bad decisions but because they made good good decisions, the same kind of good decisions that had made those companies successful for decades. (The “innovator’s dilemma” is that “doing the right thing is the wrong thing.”)

Christensen called “disruptive innovation”: the selling of a cheaper, poorer-quality product that initially reaches less profitable customers but eventually takes over and devours an entire industry.

Christensen has co-written books urging disruptive innovation in higher education (“The Innovative University”), public schools (“Disrupting Class”), and health care (“The Innovator’s Prescription”).

Startups are ruthless and leaderless and unrestrained, and they seem so tiny and powerless, until you realize, but only after it’s too late, that they’re devastatingly dangerous: Bang! Ka-boom! Think of it this way: the Times is a nation-state; BuzzFeed is stateless. Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.

Replacing “progress” with “innovation” skirts the question of whether a novelty is an improvement: the world may not be getting better and better but our devices are getting newer and newer.

The word “innovate”—to make new—used to have chiefly negative connotations: it signified excessive novelty, without purpose or end.

Joseph Schumpeter, in his landmark study of business cycles, used the word to mean bringing new products to market, a usage that spread slowly, and only in the specialized literatures of economics and business.

Disruptive innovation can reliably be seen only after the fact.

Christensen has compared the theory of disruptive innovation to a theory of nature: the theory of evolution. But among the many differences between disruption and evolution is that the advocates of disruption have an affinity for circular arguments.

Like the bursting of the dot-com bubble, the meltdown didn’t dim the fervor for disruption; instead, it fuelled it, because these products of disruption contributed to the panic on which the theory of disruption thrives.

People aren’t disk drives. Public schools, colleges and universities, churches, museums, and many hospitals, all of which have been subjected to disruptive innovation, have revenues and expenses and infrastructures, but they aren’t industries in the same way that manufacturers of hard-disk drives or truck engines or drygoods are industries. Journalism isn’t an industry in that sense, either.

Historically, institutions like museums, hospitals, schools, and universities have been supported by patronage, donations made by individuals or funding from church or state. The press has generally supported itself by charging subscribers and selling advertising. (Underwriting by corporations and foundations is a funding source of more recent vintage.) Charging for admission, membership, subscriptions and, for some, earning profits are similarities these institutions have with businesses. Still, that doesn’t make them industries, which turn things into commodities and sell them for gain.

Christensen and Eyring’s recommendations for the disruption of the modern university include a “mix of face-to-face and online learning.” The publication of “The Innovative University,” in 2011, contributed to a frenzy for Massive Open Online Courses, or moocs, at colleges and universities across the country, including a collaboration between Harvard and M.I.T., which was announced in May of 2012. Shortly afterward, the University of Virginia’s panicked board of trustees attempted to fire the president, charging her with jeopardizing the institution’s future by failing to disruptively innovate with sufficient speed;

more on Clayton Christensen in this IMS blog

smartphones technology behavior

Ellis, D. A. (2019). Are smartphones really that bad? Improving the psychological measurement of technology related behaviors. Computers in Human Behavior, 97 
, 60-66

Conclusions sur- rounding use have therefore been
largely negative and smartphones have repeatedly
been associated with depression (Elhai, Dvorak,
Levine, & Hall, 2017), anxiety (Richardson,
Hussain, & Griffiths, 2018), disrupted sleep
(Rosen, Carrier, Miller, Rokkum, & Ruiz, 2016),
impairment (Clayton,
Almond, 2015), and poor academic performance
(Lepp, Barkley, & Karpinski, 2015). This repeats a
pattern of research priorities, which previously
focused on the ne- gative impacts of many other
screen-based technologies, systematically moving
from television and video games, to the internet
and social media (Rosen et al., 2014).

There is also little
evidence to support the existence of the constructs
under investigation (e.g., technology ‘addiction’),
yet many papers and scales continue to use
language associated with a specific diagnosis (see
Panova & Carbonell, 2018 for a recent review).

When it comes to understanding the impact of
technology more generally, there is an intrinsic
lack of high-quality evidence (Ellis et al., 2018a).
Revised psychometric tests may hold some value
in the future, provided they are grounded in
relevant theory and validated accordingly.

disrupting education with technology

Nancy Bailey: Disrupting Education with Technology is Unhealthy for Children

Veteran teacher Nancy Bailey warns about the danger that technology poses to child development. 

Technology is a helpful tool, but it won’t provide that sense of stability. It’s a cold machine. School districts push technology over teachers. They don’t stop to think about what it will mean to children and their development.

the idea that instruction should be disrupted using technology is putting students and the country at risk. It destroys the public school curriculum that has managed to educate the masses for decades.

Early childhood teachers express concern that tech is invading preschool education. We know that free play is the heart of learning.

But programs, like Waterford Early Learning, advertise online instruction including assessment for K-2. Their Upstart program advertises, At-home, online kindergarten readiness program that gives 4- and 5-year-old children early reading, math, and science lessons.

more on technology in education in this IMS blog

more on Clay Christensen disruption theory in this IMS blog:

microcredentials concerns

As students flock to credentials other than degrees, quality-control concerns grow

Policymakers try to bring consistency to what “microcredentials” actually mean

As students flock to credentials other than degrees, quality-control concerns grow

Degro took the course and earned the badge that turned out to be a way to list his new skill in an online resume with a digital graphic that looks like an emoji.

Such non-degree credentials have been growing in popularity.

“We do have a little bit of a Wild West situation right now with alternative credentials,” said Alana Dunagan, a senior research fellow at the nonprofit Clayton Christensen Institute, which researches education innovation. The U.S. higher education system “doesn’t do a good job of separating the wheat from the chaff.”

Thousands of credentials classes aimed at improving specific skills have cropped up outside of traditional colleges. Some classes are boot camps, including those popular with computer coders. Others are even more narrowly focused, such as courses on factory automation and breastfeeding. Colleges and universities have responded by adding non-degree programs of their own.

some 4,000 colleges and other providers issue industry certifications, according to the Lumina Foundation, but fewer than one in 10 are reviewed by a regulatory body or accreditor.

That companies need trained employees is uncontested: More than three-quarters of U.S. manufacturers told the National Association of Manufacturers this year that they had trouble finding and keeping skilled workers.

Despite those hiring and retention concerns, industry appears reluctant to discuss the topic of policing new credentials. The National Association of Manufacturers declined to answer questions.

“If an organization wants to grant a badge, there’s nothing stopping them from doing that,” Richardson said. “It’s important for consumers to do their due diligence.”

more on microcredentials in this IMS blog


Cryptocurrencies: Litecoin price skyrockets, Ethereum follows after Bitcoin futures premiere

10 most important cryptocurrencies’ prices and trends during 12 December 2017.

10 most important cryptocurrencies

A fork itself of the original Bitcoin, Litecoin uses the same process to create the coins, and it uses blockchain to decentralize the banking. However, Litecoin still is four times faster, generating “blocks” faster, every 2.5 minutes instead of every 10 that applies to Bitcoin, making it faster and cheaper.

Ethereum, on the other hand, is more of a decentralized app platform than a cryptocurrency, could be boosted by a recent statement by U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission chief Jay Clayton, laying down a sober and knowledgeable overview of initial coin offerings (ICOs). “The technology on which cryptocurrencies and ICOs are based may prove to be disruptive, transformative and efficiency-enhancing,” said Clayton. “I am confident that developments in Fintech will help facilitate capital formation and provide promising investment opportunities for institutional and Main Street investors alike,”

more on bitcoin in this IMS blog