'Disruption' and its positive upheaval

The Monitor’s language columnist muses on whether the outlaw metaphor for economic innovators is still apt.

How did "disruptive" get to be a good thing? And is it still? A session catching up with the week's reading has confirmed that the concept "disruptive technology" is alive and well. In a recent report on research into human genetics, The Economist mentioned new gene sequencing technologies that "are already as disruptive as the original personal computers were to mainframes."

Disruption comes from Latin words meaning "breaking apart." The term "disruptive technology" is ascribed to Clayton Christensen, whose 1997 book "The Innovator's Dilemma" discussed how well-managed corporations are sometimes blindsided by new technologies.

As Booklist describes it, "Christensen suggests that by placing too great an emphasis on satisfying customers' current needs, companies fail to adapt or adopt new technology that will meet customers' unstated or future needs."

Not everybody buys it. Technology writer John Dvorak took Mr. Christensen to task a few years ago in a piece in PC magazine. Whereas Christensen saw disruptive technologies as cheaper, inferior versions of something already holding sway in the market, Mr. Dvorak saw them as whole new things.

The personal computer, for instance, wasn't a cheaper, inferior version of the minicomputer of the 1970s and early '80s, Dvorak argued. The spreadsheet was arguably the "killer app" that made legions of middle managers want their own desktop computers. But it didn't replace anything other than pencil-and-paper documents. It was a whole new thing.

"When there is true disruption," Dvorak wrote, "it comes from inventions, regulatory and social change, complementary technologies, coincidence, and demand."

Their dispute aside, I'm more interested in their use of a metaphor for destruction to describe a technological innovation that is essentially a good thing. Why not – I ask on a day when the sun is coaxing tender leaves out on the trees – some sort of leafing out, blossoming, burgeoning metaphor for change?

It's curious that disruption should be an ideal. It seems rooted in the idea of innovator as not just lone hero, but bad-boy rebel, even outlaw.

"If it ain't broke, break it!" was a catchphrase of the early 1990s. It made its way into the title of a book by another management guru, Robert J. Kriegel, and countless other business discussions.

Meanwhile, the technology business has grown, and grown up. The dropout rebels in the garage have become the graybeards of the establishment. And most of the rest of the world sees disruption as a bad thing. Disruptive behavior in schools, disruptive effects of the swine flu outbreak on air travel. Climate change, economic upheaval. I could go on.

And sometimes we seem to get into both kinds of disruption at once. Tech Central, an Irish online publication, reported in late April, "The growing trend of online security being offered [via so-called cloud computing] will be a major disruptive force in the industry, according to Philippe Courtot, chairman of Qualys." Is that a good thing or a bad thing? On closer inspection, it appeared that Mr. Courtot was using disruptive in its original sense.

At a time of economic meltdown and regulatory chaos, the outlaw model of economic innovator may no longer be the ideal.

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