Disruptive innovation – how best to embrace change

Steve Evans

Thursday 15 October 2015

Disruption is something all CIOs need to contend with, and they have to make sure they embrace disruption for the good of the business. Otherwise, they could well end up with the wrong sort of disruption.

Disruption. It’s one of those words that seems to crop up all the time at the moment; it’s definitely one of tech’s hottest buzzwords. It’s a mantra uttered by everyone from Silicon Valley’s hottest startups to some of the biggest, oldest technology companies in the world. It seems that if you’re not being disruptive, you’re not driving your business forward.

But disruption is not simply a ‘new development’. Instead, it’s when something changes an industry in a way that no one (or at least not many) could have predicted.

Ford’s Model T is often cited as a great example of a genuine disruptive innovation. Before its arrival, automobiles were expensive; a luxury item only a few could afford. But Ford’s use of assembly line production meant the Model T was affordable enough for mass-market appeal – something that had not happened before – and convinced people to switch from the dominant transportation of the time: a horse and cart.

That’s what made the Model T disruptive as well as innovative. Forbes outlines the difference rather succinctly: “Innovation and disruption are similar in that they are both makers and builders. Disruption takes a left turn by literally uprooting and changing how we think, behave, do business, learn and go about our day-to-day.”

Examples of genuine disruption in the technology industry include email, which disrupted the written communication industry by all but supplanting handwritten letters; mobile phones, which enabled us to make a phone call from almost anywhere; the Windows operating system, which disrupted the personal computer industry; and WhatsApp, which is changing the way people send SMS messages. There are, of course, plenty of other examples.

Away from the technology industry, there are the likes of Uber and Lyft shaking up transportation, while Airbnb and HomeAway are seriously disrupting the hotel/hospitality industry.

So how does all this relate to the modern IT department? Well, disruption is generally considered a good thing, and CIOs need to take the lead when it comes to fostering a disruptive environment. This means they need to be able to spot emerging, disruptive technologies and establish how they can benefit the business.

Disruptive technologies have the potential to revolutionise the way a company does business and give it a competitive advantage over rivals, whether it’s by speeding up certain processes, reducing time-to-market, or disrupting another aspect of the business.

Uniquely positioned as they are to appreciate the essentials of both the technology and of the business, CIOs must be on top of the latest developments in order to embrace disruption. Among other things, this means bridging that gap between tech and the business by ensuring that C-level executives and other key stakeholders are fully aware of where the business needs to go in order to remain ahead of the competition and profitable.

Failure to do so runs the risk that the business will itself be ‘disrupted’ – and clearly not in a good way – by competitors who are more ready to act when disruption hits the industry.

However, that’s not to say CIOs should be going head-first into any technologies they consider to be disruptive. There is a real danger that getting it wrong could result in disruption being, well, disruptive. Instead of driving the business forward, getting disruption wrong can actually send a company backwards.

For example, tablets may well be disrupting the PC industry, but that doesn’t mean CIOs should be looking to rip out their PC infrastructure and replace them with shiny new tablets. If it stops workers being productive, because they can’t do their jobs on a tablet, then you’ve disrupted the business in a negative way.

Speaking to ZDNet, Adam Thilthorpe, director for professionalism at BCS, claims that “disruption for disruption’s sake is not enough,” adding that CIOs must work out whether they are in a position to be able to help the organisation change for the better.

These changes are not just external. As well as knowing which technological disruption will benefit the business, a CIO must be able to promote disruption from within. Ian Cox, tech consultant and author of Disrupt IT: A new model for IT in the digital age, also told ZDNet: “The risk of being disrupted has never been higher and the time it takes for disruption to happen is shorter than ever. Organisations, therefore, need to be proactively disrupting themselves; challenging their business models, developing technology-enabled enhancements and alternatives to their products and services.”

That means harnessing an environment where workers feel comfortable experimenting with disruptive technologies. Fear of failure should not simply mean the status quo is maintained.

The trick for CIOs is to find that balance between embracing disruption and keeping the business operating at an acceptable level. One key skill for this is being able to think like a startup; take a much more flexible and agile approach to innovation. Don’t just stick with what works, think outside the box for ways to actually improve business processes.

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