Entering the space of disruptive innovation

Incumbents instinctively co-opt potentially disruptive innovations to avoid get disrupted by them. They indulge in innovating for show, rather than for genuine effect. They throw money at the problem without getting the return on their investment, much like irrational bailouts after a bubble bursts. They are ruled by their own self preservation and survival instincts, not enhanced value propositions, increased cost savings or better service for their customers.

Clayton Christensen's books hold up IBM as the exception that proves this rule. IBM set-up the sales and manufacture of mini computers with 45% gross margins separate from their main frame computer business with its 60% gross margins. It repeated this successful separation of businesses when launching of their PC operations with its 25% gross margins. There is no attempt to refocus the sales force to pursue less profitable customers or to put managers into double binds with conflicting objectives.

Incumbent enterprises see the doors to disruptive innovation marked "Danger -- Keep Out". The auto industry, newspapers, health care providers and universities are all under pressure to change their business models. None of them can pull the rug out from under their own feet. As Paul Miller inferred in his podcast with the authors of Disrupting Class, "the turkey will not vote for Christmas dinner". Here's how troubling disruption innovations may appear to stalwart defenders of higher ed:
  • Violating their accreditation requirements
  • Loosening their academic rigor and respectability
  • Weakening the value of their academic credentials
  • Making their grade inflation problems worse
  • Pandering to their inferior and undisciplined students
  • Lacking empirical validation and legitimate models to implement
  • Indulging in strictly commercial ambitions
  • Compromising their academic freedoms and protections
  • Selling out to their critics and legislative adversaries
  • Asking for further disrespect, interference and costly compromises

Disruptive innovators enter the space with very different perceptions. Threats appear as opportunities. Reasons to keep out are incentives to enter. Dangers ahead are paths to adoption of innovations. Here's how the disruptors of higher ed may see the doors to the space:
  • What if we open sourced the required reading, the expertise to assimilate and the materials to be researched by the self-directed learner?
  • What if we crowd-sourced the filtering out of what is extraneous, useless and irrelevant to focus on what is actually worth devoting time to studying in the data cloud?
  • What if we democratized the tools for establishing legitimacy, respectability and validity so each learner established their own academic credibility uniquely?
  • What if we peer-sourced the grading of homework assignments, evaluation of submittals and assessment of academic progress?
  • What if we structured the learning experience to maximize brain functionality instead of relying of fears, anxieties and work load pressures to produce outcomes?
  • What if we set-up ecologies of reciprocation where each learner gives back in return for the assistance received from educators, peers and online contributors?
  • What if we built the learning experiences on a model of personal maturation that incrementally outgrows dependence on and rebellion against authority figures?
  • What if we delivered each module of comprehension with an inherent business model to make money in the future providing value with that competency?
  • What if we refined this approach to be "Gen Y compliant" by making full use of Web 2.0 platforms, mobility and technological proficiencies?
With so many ways to transform the value proposition of higher ed, it's surprising the space of disruptive innovation is not already over-crowded with start-ups.


  1. Well said. All excellent points and stated with solid logic.

  2. Thanks much Michael. Good luck serving those numerous nonconsumers and the start-ups that have them on their radar -- in the space defined by your book: Disrupting Class!

  3. Lovely useful work Tom. Thank you!

  4. Thanks for the kudos! They're useful to me as I continue this work :-)