Disruptive innovations are based on the idea that every so often, a new innovation comes along that completely changes the marketplace.

Disruptive innovations are based on the idea that every so often, a new innovation comes along that completely changes the marketplace.

If Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen is right, half of all instruction will take place online within the next 10 years–and schools had better get into the online-learning market or risk losing their students to other providers.

Christensen was at the American Association of School Administrators conference in San Francisco Feb. 19 to discuss his book Disrupting Class, which looks at why schools have struggled to improve through the lens of “disruptive innovation.”

Disruptive innovation is the business idea that, every so often, a new innovation comes along that completely changes the marketplace, knocking the old market leaders from their perch and giving rise to new ones.

Disruptive innovations transform products or services into something so simple that anyone can use them, creating what Christensen called “asymmetric competition.”

Because they take advantage of these radical innovations, new entrants to the marketplace are essentially competing against “non-consumption”–that is, they’re getting customers who didn’t exist in that market before–while the innovation continues to improve.

Once the new innovation has matured, these companies are in a great position to compete with the established market leaders, Christensen said–and therefore they nearly always win.

To illustrate this idea, Christensen brought up the example of the personal computer in the 1980s. At the time, mainframe computer manufacturers such as IBM, Wang, and Digital Equipment Corp.–which made a smaller mainframe called the “mini-computer”–were the clear market leaders.


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