The intellectual legacy and example of Clayton Christensen

Matthew Ladner

A key contributor to understanding innovation in the modern economy died last week at age 67.

Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen laid the groundwork for our understanding of disruptive innovation in technology and business, a concept that has been called the most influential business idea of the early 21st century – and one that should matter to people who want to improve our education system.

The theory explains the phenomenon by which an innovation transforms an existing market or sector by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility and affordability where complication and high cost are status quo. A disruptive innovation is initially formed in a niche market that may appear unattractive or inconsequential to industry insiders, but eventually the new product or idea completely redefines the industry, displacing the dominant technology.

Creators of the dominant technology typically struggle to adjust after developing practices and cultures around previous success.  As Christiansen noted: “Organizations cannot disrupt themselves.”

A classic example of disruptive innovation was the rise of the personal computer and its disruption of the mainframe computer market, but it’s hardly the most recent. The ride-sharing industry obviously studied Christensen very carefully in disrupting the transport market.

It did so by developing constituencies (users and drivers) at a breakneck pace. Moreover, ridesharing apps had instant and large advantages over taxi services; costs were lower, the app matched a user with a driver quickly and efficiently, and the payment process was streamlined. Ridesharing disrupted out of the gate because it was a superior service the first time most people tried it. The firms introduced their services as a form of innovation not dependent upon permission – they didn’t ask city or state authorities whether it was okay to ride share, they just started doing it.  

Professor Christensen co-authored “Disrupting Class” with Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson in 2006, laying out an intriguing case that digital learning may be a disruptive technology. It may yet prove to be, although it remains unclear as to what form that disruption might take. While disruptive innovation describes a market process, K-12 continues to be dominated by politics.

While growing in frequency, digital learning still seems to be a more accessible, although not yet a clearly superior, product. But stay tuned: The day may come when innovators develop school models to strengthen the advantages of this approach, ameliorating the current shortcomings. Innovation, alas, is not a trained dog that dutifully obeys our commands on our desired schedules. As Matthew Ridley laid out convincingly in his book “The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves,” technological advances occur in unpredictable ways driven in large part by necessity.

Christensen revolutionized thinking about business and management regardless of whether digital learning proves to be a disruptive technology in our lifetimes. Better still, he gave a talk to students at the Harvard Business School titled “How Will You Measure Your Life?” that constitutes some of the best advice for living a happy and productive life you are ever likely to read.

Christensen’s career had an enormous impact, but the example of his life could in fact prove greater still.

You can read some of Christensen’s seminal pieces for the Harvard Business Review here.

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