Tuesday, May 22, 2012

When Giants Fail-Christensen and "disruptive technologies"

"The question [Clayton] Christensen began with, twenty years ago, was: Why was success so difficult to sustain? How was it that big, rich companies, admired and emulated by everyone, could one year be at the peak of their power and, just a few years later, be struggling in the middle of the pack or just plain gone? The first industry that Christensen studied was disk drives. He saw that the companies that made fourteen-inch drives for mainframe computers had been driven out of business by companies that made eight-inch drives for mini computers, and then the companies that made the eight-inch drives were driven out of business by companies that made 5.25-inch drives for PCs. What was puzzling about this was that the eight-inch drives weren’t as good as the fourteen-inch drives and the 5.25-inch drives were inferior to the eight-inch drives. In industry after industry, Christensen discovered, the new technologies that had brought the big, established companies to their knees weren’t better or more advanced—they were actually worse. The new products were low-end, dumb, shoddy, and in almost every way inferior. But the new products were usually cheaper and easier to use, and so people or companies who were not rich or sophisticated enough for the old ones started buying the new ones, and there were so many more of the regular people than there were of the rich, sophisticated people that the companies making the new products prospered. Christensen called these low-end products “disruptive technologies,” because, rather than sustaining technological progress toward better performance, they disrupted it. After studying a few exceptions to the pattern of disruption, Christensen concluded that the only way a big company could avoid being disrupted was to set up a small spinoff company that would function as a start-up, make the new low-end product, and be independent enough to ignore what counted as sensible for the mother ship."
The New Yorker Vol 88 No 13 ~When Giants Fail
This article is behind their paywall but if you can get your hands on this article, I would highly recommend it. The idea of disruptive technology applies to a lot of areas, not the least online education or libraries. Christensen's identification of the way smaller/different companies poach the bottom of the market while the big companies ignore the bottom (the steel story-see also Kodak) is the same issue higher education has with online learning. If some colleges are not going to do online education other entities, not necessarily colleges will. Frankly, if higher ed is going to make it online education needs to be treated not as an off-shoot or version of physical education but as a completely different idea. What would happen if a college jettisoned the online program into its department so that it had the freedom to experiment and try different approaches to develop its own "disruptive technology"?

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