John Hagel: The Disruption Debate – What's Missing?

ATN-300InsightaaS: I want to start this post off with a confession - I've been a big fan of John Hagel since I first read Net Gain in the late 1990s; it started my fascination with the Internet as a means of connecting people and ideas, and prompted me to start my first virtual community initiative (parenthetically, the initiative was a total failure. Of course, you learn from failures - and fortunately, that was in my pre-entrepreneur days, so the cost of failure wasn't deducted my my personal chequing account). Through the ensuing years, Hagel has remained an important voice in the digital world, as co-chair of Deloitte's Center for Edge Innovation, and through his Edge Perspectives blog, the source of "The Disruption Debate - What's Missing?"

Hagel begins this post by discussing a widely-discussed New Yorker article by Jill Lepore attacking Clayton Christensen. Mr. Christensen, of "Innovator's Dilemma" fame, needs no introduction; Ms. Lepore is a New Yorker staff writer, and like Mr. Christensen, is a professor at Harvard. She wrote a 6,000 word + article (!) in which she picked apart Christensen's tome (using observations like "Christensen’s sources are often dubious and his logic questionable" and "The handpicked case study, which is Christensen’s method, is a notoriously weak foundation on which to build a theory"), essentially concluding that disruptive innovation may work well as an explanation of the past, but fails as a means of explaining the future.

This is the point at which Hagel picks up the narrative. He begins by asking the question "how do we explain the cascading disruptions that are playing out in markets and industries around the world?" He then highlights key issues as he sees them: that disruption "is occurring with increasing frequency in the business world," and that this disruption "s a result of the convergence of two powerful forces that are playing out on a global scale," the rise of digital disruption (which Hagel categorizes as "the first technology that has demonstrated sustained exponential improvement in price/performance over an extended period of time") and "a long-term shift in public policy on a global basis towards freer movement of people, goods, money and ideas across geographic and industry boundaries." Hagel believes that these disruptions challenge incumbents at three different levels, and that ultimately, "these forces help to explain why we are experiencing more frequent and widespread disruptions on a global scale."

I admit that I’m mystified by Jill Lepore’s article in the New Yorker attacking Clayton Christensen and his theory of disruptive innovation. Not only does it have a meanness that isn’t warranted, but it leaves the reader with an unanswered question: if Clay's theories are not helpful (and I still believe they are), how do we explain the cascading disruptions that are playing out in markets and industries around the world?

Some of the commentators may be right: perhaps this article is better read as the most recent manifestation of the cultural conflict between the humanities-driven East and the technology-driven West.  The irony here is that the conflict is specifically between two professors at Harvard University — one based on the east coast of the Charles River and the other based on the west coast of the Charles River.

Clay Christensen has offered a rebuttal of sorts in an interview here. He does a good job of responding to some of the specific factual issues in his case studies highlighted by Jill Lepore and emphasizes that he continues to evolve his theory of disruptive innovation based on new research. But perhaps his best question is why she didn’t simply call him up or walk down the street to visit him before writing the attack to see if he might be able to clarify his position and his fact base.

I want to step back and use this controversy to underscore some key points that have been largely ignored in the recent discussion....

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