Christensen defines disruptive technologies as those that bring to market a different value proposition than previously available. Executives usually do not invest in disruptive technologies for three main reasons: 1) They are simpler and cheaper, resulting in lower profit margins. 2) Disruptive technologies are first commercialized in emerging and often insignificant markets. 3) Big companies’ most profitable customers usually do not want and initially cannot even use disruptive technologies.
The Christensen article reminds me of another book of his, “Disrupting Class,” which I read for a Heinz course in education policy. The book discusses how an entity, such as a school, is rarely able to disrupt itself. As a solution to the dilemma of disrupting education with technological innovation, he proposes that a new, prominent administrative role be introduced to the school system: Technology Implementation Specialist.
The Specialist should be responsive primarily to an outside body, such as the school district, in order to avoid conflicts of interest between the school and the Specialist. For example, if a Specialist were hired directly by the principal, relationships may form in which the Specialist feels obligated to be less harsh on teachers who are not properly implementing technology. Whereas a third-party Specialist might more objectively assess proper implementation, an in-house Specialist might worry that a negative assessment will result in their colleague being fired.
Similarly, John Chambers of Cisco describes how “spin-ins” are projects initially moved out of the company to help them operate more like start-ups. Once the desired technology is innovated, they are spun back into the company to apply the innovation. In other words, Chambers developed a mechanism that mimics the method discussed by Christensen in both the education policy example and this week’s excerpts.
I have found that bringing in a third-party observer is useful in even smaller systems than corporate companies or school districts. I used to work at a lobby firm in Tokyo. Some of our clients were large pharmaceutical corporations, while others were smaller service companies. I found that often what a client needed was not necessarily lobbying services, but a third-party observer that could generate fresh strategies for penetrating the Japanese government and/or market. In some cases, this meant serving as an arbiter between two competing strategies within the company. In other cases, it meant innovating new strategies that the company had trouble devising, perhaps due to the cultural biases of their home country.