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Disruption: a never-ending dilemma

The new century is characterised by ‘continual disruption’ affecting not just single firms but entire ecosystems, says an article co-authored by Professor Shahzad Ansari of Cambridge Judge in a forthcoming special issue of the Journal of Management Studies.

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Following a decade of disruptive technologies in the 1990s, the new century has become one of “continual disruption” affecting not just individual firms but entire sectors, says an article co-authored by Professor Shahzad Ansari of Cambridge Judge Business School that introduces a special issue of the Journal of Management Studies.

Professor Shahzad Ansari
Professor Shahzad Ansari

The introductory essay of the special issue, due out in November and entitled “Managing in the age of disruptions”, looks at many different theories and approaches to innovation that have followed the landmark 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen.

While Christensen’s pivotal work two decades ago looked at how individual companies can be overtaken by pesky upstarts, his original theory “does not adequately address the dynamics of a number of innovations” such as Apple’s iPhone and Uber’s ride-hailing platform – which serve as platforms for others to disrupt relationships within “entire industries and ecosystems instead of affecting just specific incumbents,” says the essay co-authored by Shahzad.

The essay – entitled “Perspectives on disruptive innovations” – is co-authored by Dr Arun Kumaraswamy of Florida International University, Professor Raghu Garud of Pennsylvania State University, and Professor Shahzad Ansari of Cambridge Judge Business School, who jointly served as guest editors of the special issue of the journal. The essay is designed to set an agenda for future studies of the process of continual disruption.

To understand the new dynamics at play in disruption, Shahzad argues that academics must apply “relational,” “temporal”, “framing” and “performative” perspectives on disruption.

A relational perspective matters because innovations can disrupt existing relationships – as demonstrated by how the quartz movement in watches disrupted traditional watchmaking networks in Switzerland, and how open-access academic publishing is disrupting longstanding relationships between scholars, publishers, universities and readers in closed or toll-access publishing.

Beyond issues faced by incumbents, a relational perspective on disruption also presents challenges for new entrants – particularly in industries characterised by multi-sided platforms because the disrupters “often need to gain access to complementary resources from the very ecosystem incumbents they disrupt,” says the essay. The TiVo television recording device and Spotify music service have a high degree of dependency on the traditional TV and music industries, while upstarts such as Uber and Airbnb have less dependency on incumbents but must navigate regulatory mazes.

A temporal perspective underlines a “processual” rather than an “outcome-based” explanation of disruptive innovation. It is a puzzle why incumbents are unable or unwilling to recognise and respond to the threat of disruption in real time, only to be disrupted over time. Incumbents tend to ignore at their peril innovations that threaten their identities, templates and mental models, or at times are constrained by emotional attachments to their products as such as Nokia in the mobile telephony market.

Considerations of relationality and temporality highlight a distributed process involving multiple stakeholders within an ecosystem leading to a “framing” perspective in which disruptors can frame an innovation to attract the support of at least some of that ecosystem’s members.

Finally, the essay offers a “performative” rather than predictive approach to disruption. A performative approach takes a broader view of the past, present and future of a given sector to inform decision-making – so companies can learn and adapt “as the phenomenon unfolds” rather than committing prematurely to a course of action “based on predictions made with meager or questionable information”.

Shahzad explains: “Performativity, in the context of disruptive innovation, does not preclude projections, however, projections ought to be seen not as predictions to be evaluated for their accuracy but as evocative visions of the future to jump-start the innovation journey. Similarly, the past is not something to be forgotten but a ‘resource’ that can be productively explored and exploited.”