Monday, June 30, 2014

Disruption Disrupted?

The professor who books his flights online, reserves lodging with Airbnb, and arranges airport transportation with Uber understands the disruption of the travel industry. He actively supports that disruption every time he attends a conference. When MOOCs threaten his job, when The Economist covers reinventing the university and titles it “Creative Destruction", that same professor may have second thoughts. With or without disruption, academia surely is in a period of immense change. There is the pressure to reduce costs and tuition, the looming growth of MOOCs, the turmoil in scholarly communication (subscription prices, open access, peer review, alternative metrics), the increased competition for funding, etc.

The term disruption was coined and popularized by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator's Dilemma. [The Innovator's Dilemma, Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business Review Press, 1997] Christensen created a compelling framework for understanding the process of innovation and disruption. Along the way, he earned many accolades in academia and business. In recent years, a cooling of the academic admiration became increasingly noticeable. A snide remark here. A dismissive tweet there. Then, The New Yorker launched a major attack on the theory of disruption. [The Disruption Machine, Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, June 23rd, 2014] In this article, Harvard historian Jill Lepore questions Christensen's research by attacking the underlying facts. Were Christensen's disruptive startups really startups? Did the established companies really lose the war or just one battle? At the very least, Lepore is implying that Christensen misled his readers.

As of this writing, Christensen has only responded in a brief interview. [Clayton Christensen Responds to New Yorker Takedown of 'Disruptive Innovation', Bloomberg Businessweek, June 20th, 2014] It is clear he is preparing a detailed written response.

Lepore's critique appears at the moment when disruption may be at academia's door, seventeen years after The Innovator's Dilemma was published, much of the research almost twenty years old. Perhaps, the article is merely a symptom of academics growing nervous. Yet, it would be wrong to dismiss Lepore's (or anyone other's) criticism based on any perceived motivation. Facts can be and should be examined.

In 1997, I was a technology manager tasked with dragging a paper-based library into the digital era. When reading (and re-reading) the book, I did not question the facts. When Christensen stated that upstart X disrupted established company Y, I accepted it. I assume most readers did. The book was based on years of research, all published in some of the most prestigious peer-reviewed journals. It is reasonable to assume that the underlying facts were scrutinized by several independent experts. Truth be told, I did not care much that his claims were backed by years of research. Christensen gave power to the simple idea that sticking with established technology can carry an enormous opportunity cost.

Established technology has had years, perhaps decades, to mitigate its weaknesses. It has a constituency of users, service providers, sales channels, and providers of derivative services. This constituency is a force that defends the status quo in order to maintain established levels of quality, profit margins, and jobs. The innovators do not compete on a level playing field. Their product may improve upon the old in one or two aspects, but it has not yet had the opportunity to mitigate its weaknesses. When faced with such innovations, all organizations tend to stick with what they know for as long as possible.

Christensen showed the destructive power of this mind set. While waiting until the new is good enough or better, organizations lose control of the transition process. While pleasing their current customers, they lose future customers. By not being ahead of the curve, by ignoring innovation, by not restructuring their organizations ahead of time, leaders may put their organizations at risk. Christensen told compelling disruption stories in many different industries. This allowed readers to observe their own industry with greater detachment. It gave readers the confidence to push for early adoption of inevitable innovation.

I am not about to take sides in the Lepore-Christensen debate. Neither needs my help. As an observer interested in scholarly communication, I cannot help but noting that Lepore, a distinguished scholar, launched her critique from a distinctly non-scholarly channel. The New Yorker may cater to the upper-crust of intellectuals (and wannabes), but it remains a magazine with journalistic editorial-review processes, quite distinct from scholarly peer-review processes.

Remarkably, the same happened only a few weeks ago, when the Financial Times attempted to take down Piketty's book. [Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty, Belknap Press; 2014]  [Piketty findings undercut by errors, Chris Giles, Financial Times, May 23rd, 2014] Piketty had a distinct advantage over Christensen. The Financial Times critique appeared a few weeks after his book came out. Moreover, he had made all of his data public, including all technical adjustments required to make data from different sources compatible. As a result, Piketty was able to respond quickly, and the controversy quickly dissipated. Christensen has the unenviable task of defending twenty-year old research. For his sake, I hope he was better at archiving data than I was in the 1990s.

What does it say about the status of scholarly journals when scholars use magazines to launch scholarly critiques? Was Lepore's article not sufficiently substantive for a peer-reviewed journal? Are scholarly journals incapable or unwilling to handle academic controversy involving one of its eminent leaders? Is the mainstream press just better at it? Would a business journal even allow a historian to critique business research in its pages? If this is the case, is peer review less about maintaining standards and more about protecting an academic tribe? Is the mainstream press just a vehicle for some scholars to bypass peer review and academic standards? What would it say about peer review if Lepore's arguments should prevail?

This detached observer pours a drink and enjoys the show.

PS (7/15/2014): Reposted with permission at The Impact Blog of The London School of Economics and Political Science.