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Ciciora's Corner: Disruption

Tue, 03/25/2014 - 7:51pm
Walt S. Ciciora, Expert on cable and consumer electronics issues

One of my daughter-in-laws is a librarian.  She comes across interesting books that she recommends to me. I hope she bought Amazon stock cheap, because her recommendations cause me to feed my book habit and Amazon is the one to benefit.  Her latest recommendation was “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns” by Clayton Christensen. The book’s focus is on the application of computers to learning by tailoring lessons to the student’s individual learning style, rather than the batch processing currently used in schools where everyone gets the same lecture at the same time. 

That would be a major disruption to how things are done!  Since I have teen and pre-teen grandchildren, this is a subject of great interest to me. But the book speaks to the wider subject of making changes in well-established organizations, like maybe the one you work for. This book discusses in detail the difficulty of making changes in any organization, school, business, or in politics. It’s not the usual “ain’t it awful” screed that complains but provides no suggestions for solution other than to spend more money. 

This book gave great examples of how innovation changes things in the business world, and also how attempts at innovation fail. It discusses what this means for making changes in education. Even if you have no interest in education (you’re smart enough already and have no kids), this book’s discussion of making changes should be of interest to you. 

A little thought reveals that business and professional life is full of disruption. When I look back, of all the companies I’ve worked for, only one is still in existence, and it’s making worrisome news at present. 

When I was in school, I worked for U.S. Steel in South Chicago; there are no steel plants in Chicago any more. I then worked a summer while in college for Teletype Corp., in Skokie, Ill.  The site of the plant is now a shopping center. I worked for Zenith Electronics for 17 years, the last two as Director of Sales and Marketing of cable television set top boxes. You know how that story ended. 

I co-founded a company, EnCamera Sciences Corp., and sold it in 2000 before the dot-com bubble burst. That worked out very nicely. But the company that bought it absorbed it, squandered the opportunity and then went out of business. I was on the board of directors of Microtune which no longer exists. 

Of the 20 or so companies that had me on their advisory boards, only about three still exist.  And I worked for Time Warner Cable and its predecessor company for 11 years. You can read about them in the current trade press. I hope they can overcome their current challenges. 

So I have directly witnessed a lot of disruption. (You might be thinking I’m a jinx! I wouldn’t be telling you this except I’m retired and don’t want or need another job.) 

The book points out that major innovation comes in prospering businesses only rarely and with great difficulty. Prosperity brings growth and a growing enterprise has scarce resources which are fully allocated to the present business. Current customers demand all available resources be applied for their needs, leaving little to none to promote new innovation.  The book’s message is fully consistent with “The Innovator’s Dilemma” by the same author, another excellent book. 

An interesting example concerns transistors versus vacuum tubes. Early transistors could only handle very low powers and thus were unsuitable for most applications in television sets. So Zenith and RCA, the first and second market share holders at the time, invested little effort in them. Sony found an application that was consistent with the transistor’s abilities and had little competition:  portable radios. Sony created small, light radios with long battery life. These innovations existed alone in a new market segment.  Later as transistor technology matured and could handle higher powers, they found their way into television sets. Sony had a head start based on its experiences with portable radios.  The book has other such examples. 

Researchers have identified eight styles of learning, and the book promotes the idea that computer-based modules can be developed that are consistent with each of these styles.  When a student uses a computer learning module matched to his or her style of learning, better results are obtained and the student enjoys learning. Introducing these techniques in competition with existing methods is disruptive and not likely to succeed. The example in the book features a student who wants to take a course in Arabic, but none is available at the school. The school's principal finds an online course and arranges for the student to take it on her own and get credit for it. Just as in the transistor example, that computer module had no competition and so no opposition. 

I recommend both books by Christensen to help understand how to get disruptive innovative implemented and where it is almost futile. The books have extensive notes for deeper investigation and are available in electronic form. 

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