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One of the tech industry's favorite words is 'disruption'. You hear it all the time. Company X is disrupting some industry. Or Company Y has been disrupted and because of that, is on the brink of going bust.

On the surface, the concept of disruption seems fairly straightforward: young companies, many propelled by new technologies, enter markets and make a huge impact, often sending larger, entrenched players into a tailspin.

The tech industry, and tech media in particular, love this concept of disruption and many in the industry shout 'disruption' with great pleasure. And that's not surprising. The concept of disruption promotes the virtues of entrepreneurship (which to be sure are real) and plays on the very powerful David versus Goliath world view. But that doesn't mean that disruption isn't overblown. It is.

The problem with 'disruption', as it's commonly spoken of, is not so much the concept itself but the significance it's given. The reality is that disruption isn't some special phenomenon; it's called 'change' and it's the natural state of the business universe. Although industries evolve at different rates, all industries, in some way or another, are in a constant state of change. That change always benefits some players over others, and sometimes the larger players get the short end of the stick.

When many in the tech industry speak of disruption, they speak as if change isn't constant. As if, absent the internet, the print publishing or music industries, for instance, wouldn't have changed. It's the business version of classical mechanics: an industry will continue to operate in the same fashion unless disturbed. The problem, obviously, is that disturbances are the rule, not the exception. New technologies are a given, consumer habits evolve, the economy changes, regulations are injected into the marketplace, companies create economies of scale that didn't exist before, etc. etc. etc.  Knowing all this, celebrating disruption is sort of like expressing surprise when the sun rises tomorrow. Needless to say, it would be far more surprising if the sun didn't rise tomorrow.

Unfortunately, the tech industry's love affair with 'disruption' often masks an inconvenient truth: those doing the 'disrupting' aren't always profiting from their efforts. Record labels, for instance, certainly don't deserve the market they once had, but a lot of the most disruptive online music startups over the past decade haven't exactly done so well themselves. But that hasn't stopped plenty from celebrating the 'demise' of the former while ignoring the trials of the latter.

At the end of the day, the tech industry, and the entrepreneurs who help it thrive, shouldn't be so focused on 'disruption'. The world around us is always changing, and that change is occurring at any given moment in a particular industry isn't worth focusing on. What is worth focusing on: finding a way to benefit and profit from that change.

Patricio Robles

Published 5 November, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2391 more posts from this author

Comments (2)

Niranjan Sridharan

Niranjan Sridharan, Digital Auditor at ABC

Hi Patricio,

Great post thought provoking post! While I agree with your thoughts on disruption in general, we should not fail to realise that the timescales for markets to mature and change were/are much longer in other industries - think aviation, automotive etc.

I think the tech industry in general and internet based businesses in particular see changes more rapidly. This is the reason for the fixation.

We have come a long way in ten years. The network infrastructure and online business models today are a far cry from the dotcom era (which was less than a decade back). I think obsession with disruption and as a result innovation has fostered the tremendous growth in the industry.

Change in the information age means a whole lot more than it did 50 years ago (and can be literally instantaneous). And the so called failures help others understand what works and what does not. I wholeheartedly agree with the last line - "What is worth focusing on: finding a way to benefit and profit from that change." But, if twenty people have helped me find twenty different ways not to lose my money - I'm happy. <br> <br>

Cheers

almost 6 years ago

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Steve Davies

You're a little wide of the mark on this one Patricio, unless of course the purpose of your post is to criticize the overuse of a term that is often misunderstood. I specialized in change management for more than a decade of my career, in several Big-4 management consultancy firms, progressing on into an area we called business transformation, where I led a practice that undertook multimillion (indeed multi-billion) sized programmes that led to new markets being created and sometimes thousands of jobs being changed.   We could debate the semantics of the term 'change management' - which clearly can be used to describe any kind of business change from progressive to transformational.  Where the scope of change was to improve, develop or downscale and existing business model or technology offering then much of the programme would be to minimise disruption to the current business.  But where the change was to either address or create a discontinuity then we most certainly used 'disruptive' approaches.  The toolsets used for disruptive change are different, in the same way that an M&A lawyer deals with different issues than a contract solicitor.   In my experience most technology companies are afraid of change - many significant technologies arise accidentally, as with the invention of the mobile phone or subsequent SMS messaging.  Change has been painfully slow in mobile telephony during the past 15 years and whilst the Internet has changed rapidly in just the last 5 years that has much to do with the disruptive effects of 'new' entrants than the incumbents. No, disruption is very real and is a deliberate strategy we've used in technology sectors when we seek to unsettle the status quo and shift the balance of power, either organisationally or towards the adoption of new platforms.  Perhaps it's a term that's misused in certain quarters but all change is most certainly not equal.   

almost 6 years ago

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