Its time to retire the corporate world’s favourite buzzword
by Gordon Campbell
These days, “disruption” is everywhere. The word, the concept, the breathless sense of momentum it tries to convey. Disruption – anarchic, dynamic, table-tipping, mould-breaking, consensus-shattering disruption – has become part of every corporate bout of auto-hype to the faddish point where the term has lost any useful meaning it might once have had. Why, at the first press conference that Malcolm Turnbull gave after he’d rolled Tony Abbott as Aussie PM what did Turnbull invoke ? Disruption. It even made the headlines.
“We have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility in change is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it.”
Business loves the term. That’s partly because it helps the suits to feel good about themselves. It enables them to believe to that deep down, they’re really some kind of Steve Jobs kick ass visionary, rather than a corporate drone more commonly employed in servicing a pretty predictable pool of consumers. Disruption is celebrated here as well.
And if you’re up for it, there’s this terrific parody of “disruption” from the Silicon Valley TV series. Come, tarry a while at TechCrunch Disrupt. (The bit at the end of this clip is about the retribution wreaked on Erlich for his ‘disruption’ of monogamy.)
Disruption is a hit in business academia circles as well:
Dr. Geoff Perry, Dean of AUT University’s Business and Law faculties explains “disruption enables organisations and individuals with opportunity to create new ideas that challenge existing businesses and business models.
“Research indicates industries or business sectors that are ripe for disruption tend to be those which have complex business models, high legal or other barriers to entry, where trust has been lost and where there are many intermediaries between the consumer and obtaining the product or service.”
Right. With none of the above being punishingly evident until well after the fact. In reality, does “disruption” mean anything more than what “change” and “innovation” meant in the 20th century, or – come to think of it – what “evolution” “revolution” and “ progress” meant in the 19th century, given that even the advocates of progress back then also recognised that it had winners and losers? In her influential attack in the New Yorker on the fad for “disruption”.
Jill Lepore not only traced the history of the term, but critiqued what she saw as its lack of predictive power. Disruption, she argues, is only visible in hindsight, and – moreover – only the successful “disruptions” make the historical cut. Meaning : announcing oneself as being open and alert to potential “disruption” may help the firms and individuals using the terminology to feel bracingly frisky and up-to-date, but it doesn’t help anyone to usefully identify the “disruption” whose time has come, from the disruption that will tank if you’re dumb enough to risk it. At best, it’s a theory of failure; it will only help to tell you why firms failed, post mortem.
How can you distinguish a firm ripe for disruption from a mature and successful firm that will crush you like an ant if you’re foolish enough to risk the family silver on trying to “ disrupt” it? Answer : you can’t. More often – and this is such a typical feature of business jargon – what we’re really talking about with ‘disruption’ and ‘disruptive technologies’ is the self-image of the person using the lingo. Here’s Lepore again :
Generally, the rhetoric of disruption—a language of panic, fear, asymmetry, and disorder—calls on the rhetoric of another kind of conflict, in which an upstart refuses to play by the established rules of engagement, and blows things up. Don’t think of Toyota taking on Detroit. Startups are ruthless and leaderless and unrestrained, and they seem so tiny and powerless, until you realize, but only after it’s too late, that they’re devastatingly dangerous: Bang! Ka-boom! Think of it this way: the Times is a nation-state; BuzzFeed is stateless. Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.
She’s right about that. Ultimately, disruption is a subset of terms for those who fancy themselves as corporate rebels. Buccaneers in business suits. In that respect, it is also a semantic toolkit for these neo-liberal times, in that the approach owes no allegiance, serves no social goal beyond itself, and sees absolute virtue in acts of predation. It is an approach that valorises atomisation. It envisages a society in perpetual start-up mode. No wonder the business school libertarians love it.
To be fair, here’s an attempted riposte to Lepore by someone in Forbes magazine.
It barely makes a dent in her argument. One final point. Full credit for the theory ( and theology) of disruption belongs to its guru, Clayton M. Christensen and to his book The Innovator’s Dilemma. Christensen’s celebration of start-up culture has been so pervasive, it has even trickled down and influenced the New Zealand artist Simon Denny, whose recent work on this theme – also called “The Innovator’s Dilemma” (!) – was taken apart pretty comprehensively in this article.
Finally, it did surprise me that Lepore didn’t mention one of disruption’s key forerunners, which made a considerable splash when it came out in the early 1960s : namely, Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn’s thesis was disruption in a nutshell. It argued, with convincing examples, that major scientific advances do not proceed gradually, by piling brick upon brick – but via revolutionary change, by the radical overthrow of the existing paradigm.
Yes, I said “paradigm.” Thomas Kuhn can be blamed for the over-use of that word “paradigm”. We survived that. Now, we need to send “ disruption” off to the same semantic boneyard.