Embracing Disruptive Change

An interview with Clayton Christensen, co-author of "Disrupting Class"
By Vern Burkhardt
We need to understand and embrace disruptive change. It will transform the way we view innovation. Businesses may be well managed, customer-friendly, and technologically advanced—they are still susceptible to failure or to being overtaken by upstart competitors.

If developed countries are to be competitive in light of ever increasing global competition, they need disruptive innovation in the education system. Today's students are embracing technology in their everyday lives, everywhere except at school. While over 60-billion dollars have been spent on computers in the classroom, the results have not been impressive. The competing forces in education are crying out for change while collectively maintaining the status quo.

In Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, Clayton Christensen and his co-authors Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson apply the famous theory of disruptive innovation, using real life business examples, to the public school system. Christensen and his co-authors argue that the next round of innovation in schools will involve student-centric learning technology solutions.

Disrupting Class speaks to an important issue of our time—the improvements necessary in our education system to keep us competitive in the global economy.

Question: You have been described as one of the world's leading experts in innovation. How did you become interested in this topic? Was it the subject of your doctoral dissertation?

Clayton ChristensenClayton Christensen: The theory of disruptive innovation and the book The Innovator's Dilemma emerged from my doctoral thesis on the disk drive industry at the Harvard Business School.

At the time I was doing the research, though, I didn't understand how far it would reach. I thought it applied a bit in computers and disk drives. Then one by one people read the research and said, "This is exactly what is happening in my industry, too!" It turned out to be a much more general phenomenon than I had imagined.

Question: The Innovator's Dilemma published in 1997 and The Innovator's Solution in 2003 dealt with ways firms can promote innovation inside their companies. What were the key messages you were providing business leaders in these two publications and have they listened?

Clayton Christensen: When I published the book I figured a bit naively that if you just write a good book with good ideas, people will read and understand it and it will change the world. It hasn't quite happened that way, but I think over the last few years business leaders are starting to understand the work's implications more and more.

A few of the key lessons for business leaders were first, you have to be careful in which of your customers to listen to, and even then you need to watch what they do, not necessarily listen to what they say. Also, if you want to generate disruptive growth, you can't listen to your current customers. You have to find that new set of customers who aren't consuming the product out there, listen to them, and then follow them.

It's also a common mistake to view disruption as a breakthrough improvement. It's in fact quite the opposite—big technological leapfrogs rarely create new growth, especially without an accompanying business model innovation as well.

Question: You argue that disruption is a positive force, as a process by which an innovation transforms a market whose services or products are complicated and expensive into one where simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability characterize the industry.

While your theories of disruptive innovation have been well established in business, did you have any reservations about the applicability in education?

Clayton Christensen: It's an interesting question. A friend of mine who had run a significant company was appointed president of a major university. Someone asked him the same question. He responded, "Business and academia are totally different. Business is a dog-eat-dog world. Education is the reverse."

You know, I didn't originally set out to apply my ideas to education, but just as people from other industries approached me and said, "You know, your work applies here, too," the same thing happened in education. About eight years ago the people at Education Evolving, who helped found the chartered school movement, came to me and said that if you just put on the theories like a set of lenses and studied the problem of education from the outside of the industry, you would see and learn a lot.

Over the last several years and thanks to the help of many, many people, we've done exactly that and, indeed, seen and learned a lot that I had never originally imagined.

Question: Companies typically improve the functionality of their products at a rate much faster than customers can use. For example, car manufacturers give us new and improved features each year, so much so that the average consumer can't keep pace.

You refer to these innovations as sustaining innovations because the competitive purpose is to provide performance improvement in the established market. You have described several examples of organizations where managers actively shape disruptive innovations into sustaining innovations to support existing processes, values and economic models.

How should corporations change their practices to incorporate disruptive innovations?

Clayton Christensen: That's right. And because these forces exist inside corporations, they can't ever sprout a disruptive business within an existing business unit. If they hope to capture disruptive growth, they have to start up an autonomous business unit that has its own unique resources, processes, priorities, and ultimately profit model and total freedom to do what it needs to do to capture the opportunity that may be out there.

Question: Your research on innovation tells us that disruptive innovations must be applied in technologies places where the alternative is nothing? Would you please elaborate on this?

Clayton Christensen: Let's take a look at the computer industry. The first personal computers that came along were pretty primitive products. They couldn't do much in the way of complicated calculations and had limited functionality with limited memories and so on.

If Apple had tried to make the personal computer compete against the dominant computing product of that time—the so-called mini-computers that Digital Equipment Corporation sold to very demanding customers—it would have flopped. Instead, the early personal computer companies sold the personal computer in essence as a toy and often marketed it for children and other hobbyists.

There, even though it was primitive, they didn't care, because they didn't have a computer yesterday, and so they were thrilled with a product that was good enough—or, as we often say, better than nothing at all.

Question: The United States is clinging to its competitive advantage by continuing to be a magnet for the best talent in the world. With the economies of China, India, and other emerging economies continuing to grow faster than those in the West, is it not true that even now, grads and post grads in engineering and the sciences are choosing to start their careers in Asia and other countries outside of the United States?

Clayton Christensen: Well, for a long time, if you were from abroad and smart, the best-paying and most-interesting jobs were only available to you in the United States. As China and India and many other countries lift themselves out of poverty and are the homes of exciting new growth, that's changed markedly to the point that you can now start an exciting and rewarding career in many other countries.

The Economist and many others have also written about this phenomenon on several occasions. The world really has changed though, which is exciting, but as a result, it presents new challenges to the United States, where before we could take certain advantages for granted.

Question: Managing innovation successfully has been the primary focus of your research and writing at Harvard. Have you found that corporations around the world understand the ever-increasing need for an ongoing commitment to innovation?

Clayton Christensen: You really have seen that develop over the past several years as whole corporations have set up whole innovation units whose sole focus is to innovate and generate new growth. At all levels, companies are trying to figure out how to generate unexpected big returns, and the way to do that is through innovation.

Question: The "herding" of students in the public school system by age and by grade, and then teaching them in large classes with 30 or more students, with batches of common materials, creates a culture of standardization that does little to recognize the unique learning needs of students. Is this one of the root causes why schools struggle to improve?

Clayton Christensen: Yes, this is one of the biggest root causes of why schools struggle to improve. Of course, if all students learned in the same manner and at the same pace, this system wouldn't be a problem, but as we know, we all learn differently.

Question: Schools have often crammed computers into the existing teaching and classroom models. The system has implemented computers in a way that sustains existing practices and pedagogies rather than in a manner that would displace the traditional approaches. We are spending billions of dollars on computers in the classroom while our competitive test scores continue to decline against students in other countries.

This suggests we need to look for new ways of innovating in schools. Would you agree?

book cover: Disrupting ClassClayton Christensen: Yes, that's right. Of course, many countries have a similar problem with implementing computers in their classrooms, too. But fundamentally, if we want computers and other technologies to have a positive transformative impact, we can't simply cram them into our existing classrooms. We need to take a page from disruptive innovation and allow them to compete against non-consumption so that we can set up new processes and priorities around them to serve different students in different ways.

Question: How does the maturation of technology solutions, which fosters increased customization, relate to the public school system?

Clayton Christensen: At the outset, an immature technology is not good enough for the most demanding jobs in a marketplace. But as it matures, it improves rapidly and becomes able to handle more complicated problems.

The same will happen with education. As student-centric learning technologies mature, it will be able to handle more and more challenging learning tasks within the public school system. As this happens, we will learn more about the differences that students have in the ways that they learn, and which of those really matter.

As this happens, the technology will, over time, be able to better customize learning opportunities for each child.

Question: The competing forces in education in the USA and, no doubt, many other countries are crying out for change while collectively maintaining the status quo. Asking the public school system to negotiate disruptive innovations from within seems fruitless.

Where do you see these disruptive changing emerging?

Clayton Christensen: Online learning, a disruptive innovation, is starting to take root in many areas in the United States—both in and outside of the public schools.

Home-schooling is a big area where online learning is taking off, but so too are areas of non-consumption within public schools like AP courses, credit recovery, and alternative education. As they take root in these places, they will begin to improve, and as budget cuts eat at the existing offerings in public schools, online courses will take on more and more of the load as more affordable options for districts that offer an escape from the barriers of time of the school day and more one-on-one and customized learning.

Question: Because the public school system is characterized by many points of interdependence, there are powerful economic forces in place to standardize both instruction and assessment despite what we know to be true—students learn in different ways.

We can all recall from our school days a concept explained to us in a different way by an adult or most likely another student and suddenly we got it. Would you please discuss the importance of taking into consideration different learning styles in implementing disruptive innovation in the school system?

Clayton Christensen: This is one of the reasons we wrote this book. If the online learning disruption comes in and grows rapidly but still looks like the monolithic education we have today, we won't be any better off. The key is in the customization. By writing the book, we wanted to call attention to this and to push software makers and e-learning companies toward building products that can customize learning.

Question: What do you believe are the likely timelines for the evolution to student centric learning?

Clayton Christensen: It's a good question. In our book we project that online learning will account for 50-percent of all high school courses taken by 2019. Change isn't far around the corner. In fact, just last year there were already one million enrollments in online learning courses in public education, which was up from 45,000 in the year 2000. We're expecting to see another year of big growth when the numbers come out in the next few months.

Question: Are many of the comments you make also applicable to the university system?

Clayton Christensen: I'm glad you asked. There are actually far more examples of disruption that have been taking place in higher education for some time.

Community colleges are a great example—nearly 50-percent of undergraduate students today are enrolled in community colleges, which are far more affordable, accessible, and convenient than traditional higher education institutions. Strategy&Innovation, a publication that Innosight, the consulting firm I co-founded, just ran an article talking about how teaching universities—in contrast to the traditional research universities—can help provide the affordability and accountability policymakers are seeking in higher education.

Online universities are another great example that is booming. University of Phoenix is leading the way here.

Finally, another product has just come out from Smarthinking that they call StraighterLine that could really change the labor model in education in very disruptive fashion that could allow for far more one-on-one time for students with teachers.

Exciting things are on the horizon for the future here, although the incumbents are in danger as they are in other industries. I've written on a few occasions actually about how the Harvard Business School itself is being disrupted by corporate and online universities.

Question: Seeing What's Next, published in 2004, dealt with the question of how to predict which companies will be successful with new innovations. Is this a must-read for IdeaConnection readers, who are interested in predicting whether start-up companies have disruptive innovation that will successfully create new markets or reshape existing markets?

Clayton Christensen: With a question like that, how could I disagree?

Conclusion: Clayton Christensen is a Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. He is the author and co-author of five books including the New York Times bestsellers The Innovator's Dilemma and The Innovator's Solution. His research and teaching interests center on the management issues related to the development and commercialization of technological- and business-model innovation.

Clayton Christensen has worked with many corporations in the field of innovation. In Disrupting Class Clayton Christensen and his co-authors concisely explain how disruptive innovation can create learning organizations necessary for the future growth of society and business.

His new book, The Innovator's Prescription: A Disruptive Solution for Health Care (late 2008) examines how to fix our healthcare system.

Share on      
Next Interview »