Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s takedown of Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation in The New Yorker has been getting a lot of attention—some of it defensive and critical, including candid remarks from Christensen himself in an interview at Bloomberg Businessweek. After railing at “Jill” for what he characterizes as “a criminal act of dishonesty” the interviewer asks: “You keep referring to Lepore by her first name. Do you know her?” Christensen replies “I’ve never met her in my life.”
Well, that puts her in her place, doesn’t it? Those damned scribbling women.
Twitter subsequently presented me with a fascinating analysis of how this theory has influenced higher education. (Twitter, in spite of its focus on celebrities and self-promotion, has become a huge part of my personal learning network. Thank you, Twitter friends.) The author, UC Santa Barbara professor Chris Newfield, provides a short history of how Christensen’s theory reversed a management trend popularized in the 1980s and ’90s, by Tom Peters (In Search of Excellence, 1982), Peter Senge (The Fifth Discipline, 1990), and Peter Drucker (who outlined the rise of a knowledge economy and the decline of capital as an instrument of wealth-creation in Post-Capitalist Society in 1993). These management theorists believed that a technological society would depend on the empowerment of knowledge workers, who ideally would have the latitude to take action to keep companies ahead of change. Newfield traces Christensen’s lineage to Joseph A. Schumpeter of “creative destruction” fame:
For both of these thinkers, the entrepreneur is the fountainhead of new value, and capital must be pulled out of less productive uses and allocated to the entrepreneur, who is the privileged source of all future of wealth-creation . . . The resulting wreckage and waste is part of progress, and must not be reduced through regulation. This is true for shuttered factories, and also for high levels of inequality: both are part of liberating the entrepreneur to create the greater wealth of the future.
Essentially, individual entrepreneurs are considered valuable because they find cheaper ways to reach new markets, which has the unfortunate side-effect of smashing up existing markets. We don’t want smart and knowledgeable workers, because they will frustratingly improve things incrementally rather throw everything out in the race to cut costs and get ahead of entrepreneurial smash-a-thons. What Christensen’s theory accomplished, according to Newfield, was recapturing power that had been distributed to workers and vesting it, once again, in upper management.
Employees’ passion for excellence isn’t an asset, it’s a problem. They get too attached to the mission, too used to having agency, too committed, too good at what they do. Disruption requires dismantling things to enable a kind of scorched-earth renewal. (Sounds a bit like the Khmer Rouge and its Year Zero, doesn’t it?) Renewal is driven by leaders who don’t need any experience in the industry they are disrupting. Quite the reverse! Expertise only gets in the way. As Newfield interprets this management theory shift, a significant benefit of disruptive innovation theory is that it concentrates power in far fewer hands, using the fear of being disrupted as an excuse. As Jill Lepore puts it, “Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.” When we’re scared, we are more likely to look to powerful visionaries and follow their orders; more likely to feel helpless, so less inclined to resist something that we’re told is inevitable.
I admit I wasn’t really paying much attention to Drucker and Senge and Peters back in the day, but this is illuminating to me, and it makes so much sense of what has happened to higher education in the past fifteen years. It also makes me reflect on library management. The libraries that seem to function best are those where librarians and other staff aren’t hobbled by the need to ask permission and feel safe trying out new things—no, feel excited about trying new things, even if they might flop. There is a difference, though, between this spirit of experimentation and the tech mantra “fail early, fail often.” There is a huge amount of waste and frantic churning in the venture capital-funded Silicon Valley start-up culture, a kind of applied fast capitalism that chews through money (and people) in the hope that sooner or later gold will be struck. The library that welcomes librarians who practice curiosity and experimentation routinely while constantly expanding their expertise is the kind of organization that Christensen believes will be disrupted—ones with knowledgeable, committed workers who constantly try to improve what their organization is doing and make it work really well.
The rhetoric of change in libraries is often about external threats and inevitable destruction. It’s almost millennialist in its invocation of the separation of the ready from the unready, the elect who will be saved and the masses who will be cast into darkness. I was recently at a conference where, if I was counting accurately, a library director referred to irrelevance four times in five minutes. We forget, sometimes, that healthy libraries change constantly and get quite good at it—if the librarians working in those libraries are treated like adults and are able to participate in the governance of the organization as experts who are committed to making the library as good as it can be. They are aware of the environment they are in. They know how relevant their work is. Being told irrelevance is imminent is like being told “hurry, get down in the basement, a storm is coming!” while knowing the sky is blue and the radar is clear. But pretty soon people are running for shelter and all you can do is try to use reason to prevent a stampede, knowing reason is not always persuasive in a panic situation.
Making things better isn’t what the gospel of disruption is about. Breaking things in order to create a different, faster, cheaper thing is. There are better, more effective, more affordable ways to make academic enterprises effective. Newfield thinks things can be turned around—but simply recognizing expertise and sharing power isn’t enough. We need to act on our core values, which for libraries include democracy, social responsibility, and the public good. Cutting costs and crushing the competition aren’t on the list.
Newfield concludes on a hopeful note:
The historical tragedy of the Schumpeter-Christensen model is that it elevated a managerial class that opposed the democratization of invention we now can’t do without. The good news is that there’s no reason to make the same mistake twice.