Author Archives: Espen Andersen

About Espen Andersen

For details, see www.espen.com.

The disrupted history professor

Jill Lepore, Harvard HistorianProfessor Jill Lepore, chair of Harvard’s History and Literature program, has published an essay in the New Yorker, sharply critical of Clayton Christensen and his theory of disruptive innovations. The essay has generated quite some stir, including a rather head-shaking analysis by Will Oremus in Slate.

I find Lepore’s essay rather puzzling, and, quite frankly, unworthy of a professor of history, Harvard or not. At this point, I should say that I am not an unbiased observer here – clayClay is a personal friend of mine, we went through the doctoral program at Harvard Business School together (he started a year before me), he was on my thesis committee (having graduated three years ahead of me) and we have kept in touch, including him coming to Norway for a few visits and one family vacation including a great trip on Hurtigruten. Clay is commonly known as the “gentle giant” and one of the most considerate, open and thoughtful people I know, and seeing him subjected to vituperating commentary from morons quite frankly pains me.

Professor Lepore’s essay has one very valid point: Like any management idea, disruptive innovation is overapplied, with every technology company or web startup claiming that their offering is disruptive and therefore investment-worthy. As I previously have written: If a product is described as disruptive, it probably isn’t. A disruptive product is something your customers don’t care about, with worse performance than what you have, and with lower profit expectations. Why in the world would you want to describe your offering as disruptive?

That being said, professor Lepore’s (I will not call her Jill, because that seems to be a big issue for some people. But since I have met Clay (most recently last week, actually), I will refer to him as Clay)  essay shows some remarkable jumps to non-conclusions: She starts out with a very fine summary of what the theory of disruption says:

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 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.”) As Christensen saw it, the problem was the velocity of history, and it wasn’t so much a problem as a missed opportunity, like a plane that takes off without you, except that you didn’t even know there was a plane, and had wandered onto the airfield, which you thought was a meadow, and the plane ran you over during takeoff. Manufacturers of mainframe computers made good decisions about making and selling mainframe computers and devising important refinements to them in their R. & D. departments—“sustaining innovations,” Christensen called them—but, busy pleasing their mainframe customers, one tinker at a time, they missed what an entirely untapped customer wanted, personal computers, the market for which was created by what 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.

She then goes on to say that the theory is mis- and overapplied, and I (and certainly Clay) couldn’t agree more. Everyone and their brother is on an innovation bandwagon and way too many consulting companies are peddling disruption just like they were peddling business process reengineering back in the nineties (I worked for CSC Index and caught the tail end of that mania. Following this, she points out that Clay’s work is based on cases (it is), is theory-building rather than theory-confirming (yep) and that you can find plenty of cases of things that were meant to be disruptive that weren’t, or companies that were disruptive but still didn’t succeed. All very well, though, I should say, much of this is addressed in Clay’s later books and various publications, including a special issue of Journal of Product Innovation Management.

(Curiously, she mentions that she has worked as an assistant to Michael Porter‘s assistant, apparently having a good time and seeing him as a real professor. She then goes on to criticise the theory of disruptive innovation as having no predictive power – but the framework that Porter is most famous for, the five forces, has no predictive power either: It is a very good way to describe the competitive situation in an industry by offers zero guidance as to what you actually should do if you are, say, in the airline industry, which scores very badly on all five dimensions. There is a current controversy between Clay and Michael Porter on where the Harvard Business School (and, by implication, business education in general) should go. The controversy is, according to Clay, mostly “ginned up” in order to make the Times article interesting, but I do wonder what professor Lepore’s stakes are here.)

The trouble with management ideas is that while they can be easily dismissed when commoditized and overapplied, most of them actually start out as very good ideas within their bounds. Lepore feels threatened by innovation, especially the disruptive kind, because it shows up both in her journalistic (she is a staff writer with the New Yorker) and academic career. I happen to think that the framework fits rather well in the newspaper industry, but then again, I have spent a lot of time with Schibsted, the only media company in the world that has managed to make it through the digital transition with top- and bottom-line growth, largely by applying Clay’s ideas. But for Lepore, innovation is a problem because it is a) unopposed by intellectuals, b) happening too fast, without giving said intellectuals time to think, and c) done by the wrong kind of people (that is, youngsters slouching on sofas, doing little work since most of their attention is spent on their insanely complicated coffee machines, which “look like dollhouse-size factories”.) I am reminded of “In the beginning…was the command line.”, Neal Stephenson‘s beautiful essay about technology and culture, where he points out that in

… the heyday of Communism and Socialism, [the] bourgeoisie were hated from both ends: by the proles, because they had all the money, and by the intelligentsia, because of their tendency to spend it on lawn ornaments.

And then Lepore turns bizarre, saying that disruptive innovation does not apply in journalism (and, by extention, academia) because “that doesn’t make them industries, which turn things into commodities and sell them for gain.” Apparently, newspapers and academia should be exempt from economic laws because, well, because they should. (I have had quite a few discussions with Norwegian publishing executives, who seem to think so for their industry, too.)

I think newspapers and academic institutions are industries – knowledge industries, operating in a knowledge economy, where things are very much turned into commodities these days, by rapidly advancing technology for generating, storing, finding and communicating information. The increased productivity of knowledge generation will mean that we will need fewer, but better, knowledge institutions. Some of the old ones will survive, even prosper. Some will be disrupted. Treating disruptive innovation as a myth certainly is one option, but I wish professor Lepore would base that decision on something more than what appears to be rhetorical comments, a not very careful reading of the real literature, and, quite frankly, wishful thinking.

But I guess time – if not the Times – will show us what happens in the future. As for disruption, I would rather be the disruptor than the disruptee. I would have less money and honor, but more fun. And I would get to write the epitaph.

But then again, I have an insanely complicated coffee machine. And now it is time to go and clean it.

This be the book

Karl Ove Knausgård‘s My Struggle has been quite the literary phenomenon here in Norway, selling more than 500,000 copies (it is a six-volume “novel”, but it is still one copy for every 10th Norwegian.) There has been much controversy about the book(s) – it is less a novel than an autobiography written by an extremely sensitive observer, pouring his soul into careful descriptions of minor scenes, much some of the indeterminable art films I remember from my youth, where the camera would linger forever on spiralling cigarette smoke or a car on a road, a boring sight but better than the dialogue, which often, in the words of Odd Eidem, sounded like “a line in a Norwegian movie or a scream in a church.”

Anyway, I haven’t read any of it, mostly because I don’t like literary bandwagons unless they contain wizards and can be read to children. But the books are now available in English on Amazon Kindle, and, well, I recently had a long flight, so now I have read the first one. And it is good – though long. As one commentator said, it seems Knausgård has mistaken the “Print” button for “Publish.” But it also, clearly, is a much needed catharsis for the author, a way of writing himself out of a childhood filled with much thinking and self-doubt. Sensitivity can be a burden, but coupled with an extraordinary ability of expression it can result in, well, lots of books.

I think the book, and possibly books, can be summed up very well with Philip Larkin‘s This be the verse1971:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Having said that, I am not sure I wouldn’t electronically grab the next volume on the next long flight. If you were in the right mood, those old melancholy art films at least filled time. Knausgård himself has four children, so he clearly didn’t read (or heed) Larkin….

Travel tip: Traveltab

I am just back from a very fruitful trip to Boston, visiting friends, meeting various colleagues and business acquaintances, even giving presentations.

One problem when you are abroad is how to stay connected: I am used to checking email, messages, and do various surfing on my iPhone, or to use it to get an Internet connection via 3G or 4G. If you do that with a Norwegian (or any non-US) SIM card in USA, you will experience a very nasty sticker shock – I have heard of people being charged literally hundreds of dollars per day just because they forgot to turn off “data roaming” on their cell phones.

Anyway – here is a great solution which we stumbled upon when renting a car at Hertz. I ordered the car with GPS, and we were given a little bag which turned out to contain a Samsung Note with TravelTab. The GPS was excellent, clear and crisp and very good at choosing a fast route around traffic.

But the real boon came with we investigated the device a bit further and found that it a) could make telephone calls (standard price per minute for a call from your foreign cell phone is up to $2 per minute) and, best of all, a WiFi spot. Turn it on, and we had flawless WiFi (for up to 5 devices) in the car as we were bouncing down the highway (the car was a GMC Terrain, quite a contrast from the Tesla I have gotten used to.)

The price for the TravelTab was, I think, around $10/day, definitely worth it for the WiFi alone. Highly recommended!

A Boston letdown

I have always recommended my friends to finish their trips to Boston by a) checking into Logan at least 3 hours before the plane leaves, b) trek over to terminal C (from the international terminal E), and c) feast on excellent seafood at Legal Seafood at that very terminal.

After having spent a great two weeks in Boston, we set this script in motion, only to find that Legal Seafood, unfortunately, has moved their restaurant to terminal B – inside security. We morosely trotted back to terminal E, to see whether it was possible to find something good to eat there.

Well, what is there is essentially a tourist scam: Durgin Park, a “Yankee cooking” restaurant, featuring overpriced food ($26.95 for a tiny lobster roll, a sip of chowder, and some fries. I mean, what? For those prices I could go to Oslo and eat.) After standing in line for 20 minutes and waiting at the table for 20 minutes, a friendly but extremely overworked waitress served our food, which was adequate (we avoided the seafood, had steak, chicken salad, those kinds of things.) The bill came to 83 and change for a two chicken salads and a rudimentary steak, and three draft beers. For that kind of money I would eat lobster and have wine at Legal. Add to this that the restaurant was head-achingly noisy.

The problem here is that the crappy service at terminal E leaves customers with a bad memory as they leave Boston. Next time, we will pack food or eat at a restaurant before check-in (or, even better, check in four hours early and go to Legal Harborside). The trouble with airport restaurants is that you have a captive audience. Terminal E is understaffed, overcrowded, noisy and just tiresome. The WiFi is some ad-supported junk that just doesn’t work.

One positive experience: The wine bar Vino Volo, which is relatively (and that is relatively) quiet, prices are airport high but not insane, the staff is friendly and the WiFi really works. So, get your food before you come to the airport, and send yourself off to Europe with a nice Malbec.

As for Durgin Park – well, it is a tourist trap in Boston, and it is close to extortion at Logan. Truly something whoever is in charge of the customer experience at Logan needs to do something about. How about throwing them out and offering the concession to Legal Seafood?

Turning the 77 bus electric

I am currently back in Boston, have visited my friends at MIT and will go to a reunion at HBS tomorrow. The weather has been great and it is just fun to visit old friends again.

But hey, this is product review. I have just purchased a set of Bose QuietComfort 20i Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones (or, rather, earbuds) which are rather impressive. I already have the noise cancelling headphones and love them for air travel, but the earbuds can be used in many more circumstances.

77 busAnd yesterday I had to take the 77 bus (Arlington Heights) from Harvard Square’s underground bus stop, an area seemingly designed to put people off public transportation. The MBTA uses old diesel buses (I think they literally are the same ones I took in the early nineties as a grad student, at least they don’t seem to have upgraded the technology) and the noise level is fantastic.

So, as I was waiting for the bus, I decided to try out my newly acquired earbuds, plugged them into my iPhone, turned on Spotify and selected Steely Dan’s Babylon Sisters. The noise instantly disappeared, and Steely Dan’s perfectly engineered music sounded not unlike it would in a perfect environment.

And here is the catch: When the bus finally arrived, I looked at it driving up and for a fleeting second thought “Hey – they made them electrical now!” Then, of course, better judgement prevailed, but as a testament to the noise cancelling qualities of the earbuds, it says something.

The rest, of course, is silence…

Double!

Here (photo: Lene Pettersen) is my last addition to my nerd kit: A Double from Double Robotics. I suppose this is formally defined as a telepresence robot, but a simpler way to describe it is to say that it is an iPad stuck on a Segway.

I spent most of Friday fiddling around with it, exploring what it can do. It is surprisingly natural in use: It can be raised (up to about five feet) and lowered, depending on whether you want to speak to someone standing or sitting. I drove it around the BI building, and quickly found that dead network spots (it needs a constant Internet connection to work) are problematic. Also, it is not very good at switching between routers on the same wireless network – it loses connection and needs a couple of minutes to find it again. I’ll probably have to get an iPad with a 4G connection, if such a thing exists (on the other hand, with a 4G connection I could send it out of the building and down the street.) Another problem was weak sound – in a room with other people speaking, the iPad speaker is too weak. I might have to get some small battery-powered speakers and Velcro them to the kit. elevators, doors and door sills, of course, are tricky.

Here are some pictures from a little excursion around the school library (photo: Martin Uteng, Instagrammed here.). A little tricky to talk to the students (again, not enough volume) and some network issues, but at least I am getting better at driving it:

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(Yes, this is actually research. And fun at work.) The use cases for a Double are several – I could advise students and go to meetings without leaving my home office, for instance. I have done that with Skype and other video conferencing tools for ages, but this thing is much less formal and allows you to putter around and talk to people. one of my colleagues has severe allergies and spends the spring as a pollen refugee in his mountain cabin – I am sure he would love to borrow it.

Compared to a picture on a computer or projection screen this little robot is much more intuitive and humanoid – you can see in which direction it is looking, for instance. I have been told that there are a bunch of these at Stanford, and that at first they were meant to be shared – but it turns out that people want their own, so they can personalize it as I have done with the ugliest bow tie I could find. My colleagues tell me it feels much more natural to speak to me through the Double than through Skype – it is almost as if I am there.

So, some technicalities left to resolve, but this has promise. I am already scheduled to give a talk through it, while I am in the States. And yes, I have already been compared to Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory. Several times…

Scandinavian cases: Call for abstracts

With two colleagues, Gerhard Schjelderup and Mikael Lönnborg, I am trying to create a case collection, to be published as a book. We start with a call for abstracts, with a deadline of June 9. You will find the details in this PDF document.

The main idea is simply to do something about the lack of available teaching cases on Scandinavian (or, for that matter, Nordic) companies. We want cases that are like HBS cases – no theory in the case, a thorough description of an interesting company with an interesting problem. Seems simple enough, no?

See you for the workshop on October 10!