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Disrupting Social Innovation

June 10, 2013

When did being disruptive go from being a bad thing to a good thing?

The Free Dictionary defines "disruptive" as characterized by unrest or disorder or insubordination and lists as synonyms disturbing, upsetting, disorderly, unsettling, troublesome, unruly, obstreperous and troublemaking.

Yet, at a recent Social Innovation Summit held in the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations, disruptive was the social sector buzzword of choice. Hardly a presentation went by that didn't use "disruptive innovation" or "disruptive technology" or "disruptive investment" as indications that people were being innovative and things were moving forward and getting better. And, more than one social entrepreneur introduced themselves to me as being "disruptors" or having enterprises that were disruptive.

Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M. Christensen is credited with coining the term "disruptive technologies" in his 1995 article that he co-wrote with Joseph Bower called Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave. In a later article, he replaced "disruptive technologies" with "disruptive innovation" in order to focus attention on the business model that yields a disruptive impact rather than on the technology itself.

Christensen defines a disruptive innovation as a product or service designed for a new set of customers.

  • Generally, disruptive innovations were technologically straightforward, consisting of off-the-shelf components put together in a product architecture that was often simpler than prior approaches. They offered less of what customers in established markets wanted and so could rarely be initially employed there. The offered a different package of attributes valued only in emerging markets remote from, and unimportant to, the mainstream.

So, according to Christensen, a disruptive product or service addresses a market that previously couldn't be served – a new market disruption – or it offers a simpler, cheaper or more convenient alternative to an existing product – a low-end disruption.

According to Wikipedia, some examples of innovations that disrupted markets are:

  • Pocket calculator vs. Standard calculator
  • Downloadable digital media vs. CDs and DVDs
  • Cloud computing vs. USB flash drives
  • Minicomputers vs. Mainframes
  • Smartphones vs. Personal computers
  • Email vs. Postal mail
  • Digital photography vs. Chemical photography
  • On-line Courses vs. Traditional higher education
  • Wikipedia vs. Traditional encyclopedias

In the past few years, this idea of using disruptive innovation to help solve some of the world's most pressing and intractable issues has taken hold with social entrepreneurs, social enterprises and a new breed of not-for-profit organizations.

Again, we can probably thank Christensen for this movement. He co-authored Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns with Michael Horn and Curtis W. Johnson in 2008. In it, they challenge U.S. K-12 education to address the needs of all of its students taking into consideration different learning styles, and they suggest that technology now allows a myriad of self-paced, on-line learning experiences where students can develop at their own speeds. With this model, teachers can now become guides and tutors rather than authorities in the classroom.

On the other hand, Andy Rachleff, President and CEO of Wealthfront, argues in TechCrunch (February 16, 2013) that just because a product or service is "better, cheaper or faster" it doesn't mean that it's disruptive. He suggests that disruptive products don't have to be cheaper (e.g., Uber is a good example of a disruptive service that is more convenient, but more expensive than simply hailing a taxi), and a better product also isn't necessarily disruptive (e.g., Tesla is successful building new cars, but the product isn't disruptive).

Matthew Yglesias asserts in a Slate Magazine commentary last month (May 1, 2013) that "disruption has now gone from a useful concept that has real value to a meaningless buzzword, drained of all meaning." "A 'synergy' for our time," he says. "Everyone wants to be a disruptor now, but there's nothing inherently virtuous about disrupting, either as a way of changing the world or as a way of getting rich."

I found it interesting to hear how much the discussion of social innovation had shifted from "sustainability" to "disruption." I wasn't alone. Alan Hassenfeld, Chairman of the Executive Committee at Hasbro, expressed some surprise that "sustainability" wasn't mentioned much in the day's proceedings. Although to be fair, Michael Horn, Co-founder and Executive Director of the Clayton Christensen Institute, did remark earlier in the day that "both disrupting investments and sustaining investments were needed."

But, Shannon Schuyler, the U.S. Corporate Responsibility Leader for PwC (who did a terrific job emceeing the Summit), may have put it best when she asked participants to consider, "When do you use disruption and when are you just being disruptive?"

Food for thought.

If you have a comment or question, please share it with us here. Otherwise, follow me on Twitter at @tmcclimonCSRNow and comment there.


P.S. Did you know that when Western Union declined to purchase Alexander Graham Bell's telephone patents, its highest-profit market was long distance telegraphy and telephones were thought to be useful only for local calls? Was the telephone a disruptive innovation or not?


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