For most of human history disruptive technologies were few and far between. The printing press, cotton gin, and steam engine locomotive are all early examples of disruptive technologies – paradigm shifting innovations.
Disruptive technologies were first observed by Clayton Christensen, who coined the term in his 1976 book The Innovator’s Dilemma. At the time of his writing such innovations were still largely scarce. Today, however, we’re beginning to see the acceleration of disruptive technologies, both in their impact and in their frequency. We’re seeing not only how fast technology changes, but also how fast the rate of that change increases. It’s no longer enough to sustain a product, if businesses are to survive disruptive technology they’ll need to remain on the cutting edge of science, constantly adapting their product or service to incorporate current trends.
Hank Lucas, Professor of Information Systems at the University of Maryland, describes a disruptive technology as one that “is so compelling that people abandon current technologies and flock to the new one.” In his course “Surviving Disruptive Technologies” he’s analyzed the demise of what he calls “the three amigos”– Kodak, Borders, and Blockbuster. Each company was seen to have established an invincible market hold that likely led them to ignore emerging technologies – in this case, digital books, movies, and film – hoping instead to absorb what may have appeared to be only a temporary market loss.
Companies like these, however, have failed to realize that with the advent of the internet and digital media, bootstrapped web startups can disrupt well established industries, and a single app developer with an innovative idea might put an entire corporation out of business. Big or small, the presence of disruptive technologies is growing and many large businesses, and even governments, may soon find themselves in an awkward position.
The skeletons of these once thriving businesses serve as a silent warning that emerging technologies are gaining traction faster than ever and that their power to disrupt market leaders should not be overlooked.
But what keeps the top of the heap from embracing emerging technologies? Lucas claims that it’s typically a combination of factors including denial, resistance to change, and lack of imagination. It seems as if confoundment could easily be included in that list. As emerging technologies grow in frequency, the resources required to investigate each of them is growing as well.
Now, more than ever, companies need to be dedicating people and resources to investigating and responding to disruptive technologies. Michell Zappa, a technological forecaster and president of Envisioning Tech, offered us three tips on how companies should go about researching emerging technology.
The first is to be broad in your research. In other words, just because an emerging technology has nothing to do with your business, doesn’t mean it won’t in the future. Disruptive technologies often begin as specialty services or products reaching a niche market, before evolving to reach a broader audience at a fraction of their original cost. Because of this, it’s not unlikely for an emerging technology that seems unrelated to your industry to find relevance as it gains momentum. “Your research needs to cover considerable latitude in subject area outside your industry’s comfort zone,” says Zappa. As a result, the scope of your research can be overwhelming. Identifying technologies that could grow to disrupt your industry is perhaps the hardest part of technological forecasting.
Zappa’s second tip is to narrow down your list to specific technologies that could pose the largest threat. “Pay close attention to the amount of content you can consume and successfully parse,” he says.
Having identified the right technologies you’ll have time to research each in depth, which is Zappa’s third tip. If you intend to assimilate your own product you’ll need to have a full understanding of how the new innovation works.
He concluded, “familiarize yourself with swathes of technological research without losing depth of understanding in the subject area.” Of course, this can be an overwhelming, sometimes impossible task. That’s why forecasters like Zappa offer their services as independent contractors.
In today’s business and technology climate, it’s reckless to do nothing in the presence of rapid change. Products and services need to reflect the accelerated pace of innovation, and those who refuse to adapt will quickly find themselves rendered obsolete.