Disruptive versus destructive innovation: an answer to Paul Prinsloo

I think that the discussion on business models, innovation and disruptiveness will improve as we make a distinction between value and profit, and between disruptive and destructive.

In my opinion, each organization tries to deliver value to the outside world. Whether you supply a product or a service. Whether you aim to earn a profit or are a task oriented organization, someone has to belief your activities.

Whereas profit is the outcome of a monetary transaction, value is created by the usage of the offering: by using a product or using the products which result form a service. It is therefor that in modern marketing the influence of the user or receiver is so important: production determines the characteristics of a product or service, usage determines its value.

A monetary profit is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for the realization of value. Learning can add value by increasing a persons competences, by making an organization smarter or a society more egalitarian. Yet it can be very difficult to express these increases in monetary terms, necessary to determine the amount of profit.

Classical oriented economists and politicians will argue that learning will increase a person’s potential future income and that it would be justified that people would pay for their own education. This ignores the positive external effects of this education on the productivity and lives of other members of society, but it also ignores the risks of general economic factors which are as important for the realization of the potential income.

Value does not imply profits, hopefully profits do represent value.

Within the field of innovation, we often speak of Schumpeterian destructive innovation. With that economists indicate that often the creation of new things will result in the replacement of old products and services. Creativity is a source of more productive processes, of more attractive products and better services. A problem is the translation of a creative invention into a sustainable innovation. Frequently, the proof of the superiority of an innovation is backward looking. Economists can give a long list of inventions which were technically superior to other inventions, but did not survive the competition.

Disruption is something else; Christensen defines it as an invention, aimed at non-consumers and the bottom of an existing market. It becomes a successful innovation when it convinces non-consumers to use the product and slowly nibbles at the bottom of the existing market. These kind of innovations are characterized by a negative development: by removing features which are aimed at the upper part of the market, the product or service becomes less complicated and cheaper to produces. This results in a lower price. Both the decline in price as the concentration on the core features of the value offering, non-consumers will be convinced to try the new product.

Christensen predicts that the newcomer will, in time, move upwards in the market; the same propensity explains why the incumbent firms cannot counter the entry of the new firms at the bottom of the market. Given an initial position, existing customers expect the firm to add new features increasing quality and usability for the existing customers. However, this increase in quality will cause the costs of production to rise. It therefore not to be expected that incumbent firms are able to counter the entry of the new firms or even initiate a disruptive innovation in their own market.

Disruption adds additional products to total supply and can turn into a destructive force when the firm moves upwards. Creative destruction will be replacing existing products with superior competitors from the start.

Applying these concepts towards the educational sector, we have to distinguish new alternatives aimed at non-learners and alternatives replacing existing educational supply.

For example, studying physics through Youtube-movies can be inferior to an f2f education in modern laboratories. Yet, for some students it is the only way to study a subject, given their restrictions in terms of location, money or time.

Educational alternatives as Moocs can be disruptive in the sense that they offer non-learners a chance to (re)start an education by removing some of the barriers of traditional education. However, they will not be destructive in the sense that they will replace traditional education as long as they miss some of the essential features as certification and degree awarding. When they move up, for example when a firm uses Moocs as internal trainings programs, they replace part of the traditional education. Yet, they have a long way to go before free educational programs will take the place of traditional education.

(Open) Distance education is potentially more destructive than Moocs. In a world of fragmentation, where people want to find a personal mix of work, learning, personal time, there is a demand for just in time and just in case (formal and informal) learning. The supply determined approach of traditional education does not fit this modern way of life. So an open and creative approach to education could result in forms of education which will replace (destroy) the traditional 16 – 24 years oriented programs.

This depends, as Christensen et al. points out, on the way accreditation institution react. Incumberants will try to influence the quality “eisen”, to protect their own programs. So standaards can act as a barrier to entry, the same as in other sectors.

Soucrce: Christensen et al on disruption of education

So when Paul Prinslo remarks that: “In the context of Unisa, there is also ample evidence that some initiative is launched under the banner of “disruption” and “innovation” without considering the implications and impacts of these ideas on our students, staff and institutional well-being. Some of these also disrupt the core business of the institution to such an extent that the center does not hold, and that several systems cannot cope with the impact. I am OK with the idea of piloting a novel and disruptive idea alongside the main business  and then go big. But there seems to be a believe that starting small is not disruptive enough

I can sympathize with his feelings. Management at the Open university of the Netherlands also has the tendency to start developments that are criticized by the staff and students. I think that the educational sector globally is in a state of flux, ranging from financial problems of institutes to financial problems of students, from having to redefine their mission to dealing with the effects of the economic crises.

Yet, disruptive innovation has become a fashionable management term; sometimes disturbing your organization can be a good thing, often it is not. Organizations benefit from incremental changes. It shows good management: [most of the time] sudden changes indicate that management was not prepared for outside changes; incremental changes towards the new outside conditions give the opportunity to build on the existing competences and change them slowly. When the organization (management and non-management) are incapable to react to new conditions, they leave room for others to come up with creative new modes of education which better fit the new economic and social conditions. These trends could become destructive and replace educations as we know it.

Disruptive innovations are occurring in situations that traditional education ignores the potential group of non-learners increasing research efforts and raising demands on students to meet rising qualifications. The ignored group could become the target of organizations which supply a less complex and cheaper form of education.

Organizations should make a well balanced choice between stakeholders, potential students and competitors before drastically changing their existing business model.

Yet, I belief that especially the open universities of this world offer value to individual students but also to society as a whole by offering a formal education to those who otherwise would not be capable to increase their knowledge, be it a single course to increase their knowledge on a single subject, by taking several courses as lifelong learning or taking a full program as a second chance to education!!

And because a new version of something old can be beautiful:

(the original: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FaVDXyXqI9Q)
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