In a controversial article published by The New Yorker, Harvard historian Jill Lepore made an unprecedented accusation against the quality of research by one of her colleagues across the Charles River: Professor Clayton Christensen from Harvard Business School. Jill accused Clay of having cherry-picked industries to force data to fit into an elegant theoretical model. Clay argued back demonstrating that Jill had quoted “evidence” out of context without taking into account all the other research that had been carried out since the first publication of “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” The crux of the debate can be boiled down to one single question: Is “disruptive innovation” a useful concept to guide managerial decisions?
It is a systemic problem in the field of management; theories are often treated as fad. Consultants, managers, and executives are all too eager to learn about the next big thing and then try to use one single concept to explain everything. When enthusiasm grows too big, someone somewhere will inevitably become discontent and start trying to poke holes in the thinking and then declare the entire concept as invalid. Enthusiasm wanes and the public moves on to the next big hunt – in search for another idea that can explain everything, again.
Without diving into the theory of disruptive innovation, it is useful to recall how the concept has evolved since its first inception in the late 1990s. After the initial articulation of Clay’s work, a stream of doctoral students from Harvard and Business School and other researchers around the world have advanced the concepts and examined their applicability in different organizational contexts outside the technology sector, from family business to non-profits. Findings have been published in peer-reviewed academic journals, teaching materials, and many books. More interestingly, Clay’s work is also part of a larger field that examines how resources are allocated inside corporations, a field with a more than 35 year history.
Many observers think that recent research from business schools bears less and less relevance for practicing managers. This is indeed unfortunate. The theory of disruptive innovation is among the few occasions where rigorous research surprisingly finds its way into mainstream business, guiding managers to make day-to-day decisions. The danger of the current debate is that it might mislead managers into thinking that the concept of disruptive innovation is no longer “hot”. Rather than working through the issues and advancing our knowledge further as would be done in the field of medicine, engineering and physics, those who agree with arguments like Jill Lepore’s risk throwing up their hands and moving on to the next big thing. That would be huge loss to everyone.
Howard Yu is Professor of Strategic Management and Innovation at IMD, where he teaches on the following programs: Advanced Strategic Management (ASM), Building on Talent (BOT), Breakthrough Program for Senior Executives (BPSE), Executive MBA, Strategic Marketing in Action (SMA) and Orchestrating Winning Performance (OWP).