When it comes to talking about technology, social networks, or for that matter, life itself, disruption can be a very powerful and sometimes confusing word.
Facebook, we are frequently told, is a disruptive technology. Twitter is a disruptive technology. Tunisia and Tahrir Square could never have happened without the disruptive influence of flashmobs and mobile technology. Blogs utterly disrupted the daily business of journalism and newspapers, and traditional media are finally mainstreaming the meme: February’s Forbes “30 Under 30” cover is subbed “Meet the Disruptors”—as if it’s a game show! And February’s Technology Review, that stalwart bastion of scientific bastardization from MIT, touts “Disruptive Technology” on its cover, anchoring an entire section of the magazine with an excerpt from a new anthology of the very book that inaugurated the term “disruptive innovation”: HBS professor Clayton Christensen’s 1995 The Innovator’s Dilemma.
Disruption is in the air, but it’s not always clear what it means. Even Christensen had his doubts. When I interviewed him nearly a decade ago, he was ambivalent about the word, if not the idea. Intel’s Andy Grove once gave a speech lauding him, but Christensen told me that even Grove was critical of the word, noting that there were too many “prior connotations to disruption,” and declining to use it internally. “People do misunderstand it,” Christensen told me, “but it said what we wanted it to say.”
The seed of that ambivalence is still growing 20 years later. To some ears, the disruption vogue smacks of the same revolutionary zeal embodied in another coinage prevalent at the birth of the web some 19 years ago: disintermediation. Consumers could break out the bubbly because the web was about to remove the middle man! Of course, it soon became clear that disintermediation was just another form of mediation, albeit one with cheaper advertising and new channels and digital gatekeepers, portals and the digital agencies that popped up to support them. We may have been removing the middle man, but we were far from sticking it to the man. Instead, like most revolutions, we’d just done a 360, replacing one regime for another.
Fortunately, the current vogue for disruption holds a different promise, one that creates tremendous opportunity, for brands or governments. Despite its fierce-sounding nomenclature, disruption is not ultimately a harbinger of revolution but rather the basis of a competitive reset founded on the fundamentals of good customer—or citizen—engagement.
To understand why, it’s necessary to go back to the Innovator’s Dilemma. As Christensen saw it, the innovator’s dilemma is that incumbent companies are caught in a web of their own success. Incumbents are terrific at staying one step ahead of threats to their business through what Christensen called “sustaining innovations”—the rational investments companies make each day to create more useful products: airplanes that fly farther, computers that work faster, mobile phones with longer-lasting batteries… whatever they think the market and its customers are telling them to do.
Disruptive innovators see the incrementalism in these innovations as a bloody red target. Disruptors see the telltale signs of historical change behind the incumbents’ incrementalism. To a disruptor, a hybrid car is a costly and inaccurate response to the need for low-cost, energy efficient automotion. To a disruptor, a newspaper blog is at best a misguided response to the realities of instantaneous 24/7 networked reporting. Disruptors take aim at these targets with innovation based on the job that the incumbents are incapable or unwilling to fulfill through their value networks, and they do it for much lower cost: think Zipcar or Flipboard. Disruptors solve a job that would put the incumbents out of business if they were to try the same strategy. (Zip and Flip aren’t “advanced technologies” but clever, cheap, off-the-shelf combinations of technology that work well in a fledgling market, and if Hertz or the New York Times bet their businesses on them, they’d fail miserably.) The incumbents see the virtues of disruption quite well, thanks much, they just can’t execute on them or they’d go bust. Hence, the innovator’s dilemma.
Historically, it seems we’ve arrived at a moment where disruption has succeeded revolution as a meme of historical change, providing us with better results and a fresher understanding of who our customers are and what they need.
Are there people who historically haven’t been able to do this thing for themselves and so have gone without it or let others do it for them? What products do your customers really want—and what are the best products for those customers? How do we structure our organization and whose money will we take to fund our business? Which parts of the value chain shall we outsource, and which need to be integrated?
Not coincidentally, this is one reason why advanced metrics for analyzing customer engagement—based on direct observation of literally hundreds of social signals swimming in the sea of unstructured consumer data that arises through social networks—are now emerging. (In future posts, I’ll be talking about some of those.) Dachis Group’s Social Business Index and Social Performance Monitor are designed precisely to help companies get out of the expensive incremental experimentation business and jump directly into the hearts and minds of their customers to figure out what jobs they really need to be done. With real, direct, actionable customer intelligence in hand—the Social Performance Monitor actually dives into the actual components that make up relative brand performance, specifically, Brand Awareness, Brand Love, Brand Mindshare, and Brand Advocacy—companies can practice innovation in ways that allow them to build good theories, find patterns and anomalies that will guide them to predictable success, avoid the bogeyman of commoditization, and teach them to migrate from vertical organizations and proprietary technologies to interdependencies and modular architectures.
When you put it like that, of course, disruption sounds a lot less radical and a lot more like hard-assed social business intelligence. As Occupy Wall Street discovered, it’s easy to make a big noise, but something altogether different when you need to make real change actionable. To disrupt, and not just to shake things up. Without deep insight into the job your customers (or citizens) need you to do, disruption either can be a cover for impotent viral expression or an expression of needs the status quo can’t even imagine. The question is, what kind of disruption will you choose in 2012? Tell me here in comments or @craigbromberg on Twitter.