Everyone’s Talking About It – But what is True Disruption?

On the matter of technological breakthroughs you may have come across the term disruptive innovation. Then again, maybe you haven’t. Either way the term has taken on a degree of prominence in recent times, given the seemingly boundless levels of new technology, products or services that have emerged into the world. Changing the way in which we communicate, operate, trade or generally do business.

Which is, essentially, at the core of what disruption means. In a techy sense.

So, here’s a definition for you:

“A disruptive technology is one that displaces an established technology and shakes up the industry, or a ground-breaking product that creates a completely new industry”.

Source: Whatis.techtarget.com

When we talk about disruption we are talking about a new breakthrough in technology that can entirely transform an industry.

Powerful stuff.

Now, the thing is, disruption, or disruptive technology are terms that seem to be applied to almost every new innovation these days. Just as footballer’s can now be heralded as legends simply because they’ve reached the age of 30 without busting a cruciate ligament, or films can be ‘instant classics’ because they tried to wring out a tear or two on some controversial theme or other, so it seems that every new innovation, invention or application is ‘the next big thing’ – sure to change the way the world operates in a fashion not seen since someone noticed that applying round things to flat things can make moving around a bit easier.

The reality, of course, is that just because a new product might be an innovative development that serves a particular purpose, or improves on an existing function, does not mean that it classifies as disruptive technology, ready to revolutionise its industry.

So what technologies can we consider true disruptions?

The idea of disruptive technology was born out of a 1997 best-seller The Innovator’s Dilemma (Management of Innovation and Change) by Harvard Business School Professor, Clayton M. Christensen.

It was he who defined the idea that a disruptive technology had within it the capability to drastically alter our lifestyles, the way we work and even change global economies.

Naturally, by such definitive and dramatic definitions, there’s a limit to those innovations which can truly claim to be disruptive.

For instance, recent innovations that have enjoyed meteoric success and high publicity are AirBnB and Uber. Both offer ‘new ways’ to book traditional commodities within our culture: accommodation (in the case of AirBnB) and taxis (in the case of Uber).

Does this make them disruptive?

Probably not.

They’ve certainly ruffled the feathers of their respective industries, and can claim to have caused some of the traditional powerhouses to review their operations to a degree. But neither have really caused a cataclysmic change. Uber, for instance, may harness the power of mobile internet to deliver a service, but ultimately, it’s still people ordering up a cab.

True disruption goes further than this – often, much further. And, invariably, it will make marquee casualties out of some traditional market leaders along the way.

I present Digital Photography as exhibit A

Remember those old family holidays when your dad would get you all gathered around on the pier to take a group shot? The way you’d all hold your ‘say cheese’ smile while your dad sheepishly stopped to wind the film on?

Or the way you’d get to the end of your roll of 24 shots, pop it into a little yellow envelope and drop it into Boots, to collect the next day (or a couple of hours later if you were flash and could afford the express service)?

Kodak remember these days well enough.

Mainly because virtually every camera in the world was loaded with film made by them.

The idea of digital photography had been around since the 1980s. By the end of the 1990s it had established itself as a consumer technology and the way we took photos was forever changed. And decimated Kodak’s traditional market.

Disruption in the internet age

The internet itself has been a disruptive force on the world; integrating itself into virtually everything we do; from communication to commerce, work, entertainment and even personal relationships.

But it’s the way in which the internet evolves where we see the true disruption.

Mobile internet has been a breakthrough that has taken the internet out of the office and living room, off the computer and out into the world at large. An internet accessible wherever you are and whenever you need it. Add to this the advent of cloud computing, meaning that not only do we have anywhere access to the internet, but also to any data or content that we may need at a given time. Innovations that have revolutionised the way we’re able to work, to communicate and share information.

Mobile technology has enabled the internet to truly take a control over all aspects of our lives.

Disruptive enough for you?