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.

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6 thoughts on “The disrupted history professor

  1. Mayson Lancaster (@maysonic)

    Of course, saying that the PC disrupted the mainframe industry misstates the history: when the PC arose, the mainframe industry consisted of IBM. And who dominated the PC industry? IBM (once they entered it), until Microsoft ate their lunch.

    1. Espen Post author

      Actually, Dell, Zenith, Compaq and Gateway ate their lunch, after Phoenix Technologies reverse-engineered their BIOS chip. But yes, your point stands.

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