Leveraging disruptions vs. creating disruptions

Michael Mathews Oral Roberts University
Michael L. Mathews, CIO, Oral Roberts University

Years ago, I worked for Dan McLaughlin, a phenomenal leader at Cray Research Inc. Dan would challenge me every time I had an innovative idea. He would say, “Mike, I like your idea, but you will need to say the same thing, but use different words to convey your idea.” It was his way of letting me know that innovative ideas are difficult to convey, and more people will embrace the change. His wisdom forced me to use many different visuals and words to help the myriad of people that I wanted to embrace my ideas. Dan’s advice helped me shorten the innovation adoption cycle and allowed me to challenge others to use the appropriate phrase(s) to convey their own innovative ideas.

Disruptive technology is not the same as disruptive innovation

In the mid-1990s, Dr. Clayton Christensen[i] came up with the term ‘disruptive innovation’ as the metaphor for suggesting changes to business processes, industry, and society. Technology vendors loved this concept, but they changed the phrase to ‘disruptive technology,’ which made a self-serving assumption that technology made the innovation a reality. Most companies did this to sell their technology devices and solutions as the silver bullet to change business processes, industries, or areas of society. In many ways, technology can change certain aspects of business and society. However, there is little evidence that things are changing in the right direction, except that technology companies are starting to become the new Fortune 500 leaders.

The in vogue and flawed phrase ‘disruptive technology’ allowed technology companies to see their revenue skyrocket. The burden of the disruption was on the back of the users of the technology. Clayton Christensen’s proper phrase (theory) ‘disruptive innovation’ leverages process improvement and a balance in technology, but doesn’t let technology drive the disruption. The improper phrase ‘disruptive technology’ forces itself upon industry or society due to its glamour, while seldom changes things for the better. When the later use is applied, the technology will generally create more work and confusion among people.

After 20-years of creating a lot of ‘perceived’ changes with disruptive technology, people have become overwhelmed and bewildered with all the disruption. Some of the wide-spread depression and anxiety related to work and family – is the result of 2-3 generations of fashionable technology that never really improved things. It is merely wishful thinking under the guise that ‘disrupting’ people, business, industry, and society with technology is always positive. Instead, a belief that technology with a sole purpose to cause disruption has put people on the proverbial gerbil wheel. Clayton Christensen’s original theory of ‘disruptive innovative’ was reasonable, but changing the phrase and intent was a colossal mistake.

About five years ago, while witnessing all the false promises of technology being caused by ‘disruptive technology’, I changed my own personal mission statement as a Chief Information Officer (CIO) to read ‘Help people survive and thrive in the global and digital age in which we find ourselves.’  The number of people feeling overwhelmed made me realize that the more disruption was being fabricated, the less likely people were embracing it.

The statement of the Cray Research Inc. leader rang in my ears, “Mike same the same thing, but used different words.” I started to publicly speak out that I was opposed to disruptive technology, but was completely supportive of leveraging technology to solve world problems. In essence, I changed the phrase ‘disruptive technology’ to ‘transformative technology’. This personal shift has created a 50X improvement in reaching people worldwide, alongside aa full list of digital transformation measurements for higher education.[ii]  

Aligning Real Disruption with Technology

COVID-19 has proven to illuminate Clayton’s theory, as opposed to purposefully fabricating disruption to sell technology.  We are all currently witnessing a real disruption across the globe that allows technology to be leveraged to transform the issues we now encounter. While most of the world was slowed down by the global pandemic, I could sense the reality that this may be the first real global disruption we have seen in generations. It was also clear that people could quickly embrace the innovative ideas in the making for years.

The innovations that were in the shadows for years no longer needed ‘different words’ to explain them, as they were required to address health, education, finance, communications, and regulatory challenges. Within four months of Covid-19, the disruptive innovation of Zoom grew from 20 million users to 350 million users while people realized they could do business, education, and have collaboration and relationships in a limited, but surely, innovative manner.

I witnessed things that took me 20-years to explain, quickly become embraced. I heard leaders say, ‘I finally understand what you have been talking about’. In a very humble way, I realized that a real disruption was needed to allow many innovations in technology to be embraced. Dan’s words still echo in my ear, as I realized we are all saying the same thing, but using different words such as … COVID-19, global pandemic, shelter in place, lock-down, limited air transportation, borders closed, 14-day quarantine periods, etc.

I invested 24 years of my career in seeing professors embrace the value of technology to do more virtual, distance, remote, and online learning. With just a few word changes, they flipped the switch and saw the innovations waiting in the shadows.  Ironically, Dr. Clayton Christensen passed away just before the Covid-19 pandemic; January 23, 2020. I am reasonably sure that he is on the other-side, grinning that his theory has held true. However, he also sees that you can’t fabricate disruptions for the benefit of technology; but you can leverage technology when a true disruption occurs.

Some examples

One of the best examples illustrating disruptive innovation occurred with a very simplistic and wholesome global movement called UNITE714[iii], which started in March 2020. This movement can easily be named the largest virtual ongoing viewing by people in human history. This unified front or coalition of relationships has resulted in over 889 million people viewing or participating in this ‘virtual cosmos of humanity’ for one purpose. Until April 2020, the largest virtual or online gathering was the April 2020 Fortnite concert[iv] with slightly over 12.5 million people. 

What we are seeing is a new disruptive innovation that allows virtual gatherings like UNITE714 to be in perpetual motion. This continuous motion with UNITE714 is being described as a ‘virtual cosmos’ or ‘virtual ecosystem’. Granted, a Fortnite concert is a decent call to action, but the call for anyone to pray twice a day across the virtual cosmos since March 2020 is unprecedented. Keep in mind; this has happened during the very time that many churches around the world have not been able to meet. Many people would call this a Black Swan[v] event.

Prior to the disruption of COVID-19, a clergy member or movement would have a difficult time getting 800 people to pray in a unified fashion, let alone across all religious groups around the world. I know many of my colleagues and friends who have tried for years to get religious groups to leverage technology. It took a global disruption to leverage the innovative technologies that have been waiting in the shadows.

For years, clergy have minimized technology by using it to make themselves look and sound better. With one global disruption, they are reaching out around the world with no pretense, other than praying, caring, and sharing across the cosmos — everywhere digital signals are found across the Internet (social-media, email, newsletters, YouTube, Vimeo) and cable tv platforms.

One final example is the Children’s Guild Alliance[vi], which immediately switched their October 2020 Kid’s First Conference[vii] from a national conference to a global conference for K12- teachers’ across the world. This shift was a quick ‘re-tooling’ to step up their mission to help 100% of the world versus just 3% of the world living in America. Based on this shift, the entire line-up of keynote speakers has shifted to include world-wide leaders like John Baker from the global learning management system company, D2L.[viii]

A true disruption produces true results, as it leverages the very innovations that have been talked about for years! 

[i] https://claytonchristensen.com/


[iii] https://www.unite714.com/


[v] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_swan_theory

[vi] https://childrensguild.org/

[vii] https://kidsfirstconference.org/

[viii] Desire to Learn; https://www.d2L.com


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