Ever since reading Clayton Christensen’s book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” and giving my first big talk on the topic in 1999 at a publisher’s dinner in Georgetown, I’ve been watching how the term “disruption” morphs and wanders, its rhetorical power undeniable but its meaning often unclear. The word is thrown about with abandon, many times without its user acknowledging some of the subtleties. You may hear “disruption” used as one might use “revolutionize” in the broadest sense, or used as a synonym for “irrelevant” or “defeated.”
What is disruption? Generally, there are two main flavors — disruptive technologies and disruptive innovations.
A “disruptive technology” is one that usually preserves the output the market desires, but reshuffles the underlying value chain in such a way that old players are sidelined and new ones emerge. Think steel mini-mills replacing massive steel mills — the market still wanted and got steel of all types (rebar, sheet, coil), but the incumbent steel manufacturers were displaced by mini-mills that chewed their way up from the bottom. Think e-books replacing print books, where we are seeing much the same story. For scholarly publishers, think online platform purveyors supplanting printers. In our world, online is a disruptive technology for printers, not for publishers. Disruption depends on where you sit in the value chain, but if you own the retail interface, so to speak, you have to worry about a different flavor of disruption.
A “disruptive innovation” is more of a market-oriented change, one that approaches the revolutionary point more directly. For instance, while the automobile was a disruptive technology at its essence, it was not itself a disruptive innovation for the larger transportation market. Only the mass-produced Model T made the automobile a disruptive innovation in the market. Without mass production, the automobile would have remained the 20th-century equivalent of the Segway scooter — an indulgence for resorts and people with too much money, a disruptive technology stalled in a market backwater. Disruptive innovations change the market for everyone, leading to the end of some markets and the beginning of others. Online has been a disruptive innovation for the news business, for instance — for instance, now Flipboard has created a news market from social media. Every newspaper is now, quite literally, yesterday’s news. The market changed, and it won’t change back, and the restructuring is something to behold.
A recent essay by David Worlock talks about disruptive innovation as wrenching and nearly fatal, a phenomenon made extreme by our inability to think about our businesses in ways the new networked world requires. It may be that many businesses are becoming comfortable with:
. . . blaming the technology that could save it for “disrupting” it to death. Maybe this is right. Maybe the old world has to be purged before the new one takes over. Maybe we have to go through the waste of redundancies, the dissipation of content, the loss of continuity with users/readers/customers before they are able to show us once again what we really should be doing. But now, when we know so much about “inventing the future” this seems a very rum way of proceeding.
The problem may not be with scarcity vs. abundance or incumbent vs. new entrant, but with our mindsets around the assets we already own — mindsets that makes jarring disruptive innovations seem to come out of nowhere, as if we’re blind. As Worlock states it:
No one looked at [their] holdings through the eyes of customers, buyers, or users. Channel and format, the classifications of the past, are the only way that current managers can see their businesses.
But we can reduce the sting of disruptive innovations by bringing something akin to them to market first. I have a recent personal example of an innovation that hints at being disruptive. At JBJS, the Journal had the usual case reports section when I started, with the typical low acceptance rate and editors a bit weary of the crush of these disjointed reports. We could have maintained the status quo (case reports are popular with readers even if editors tire of them), or we could have gone the opposite direction and simply stopped accepting them. Instead, we thought in a networked world manner, and created JBJS Case Connector, a new journal that uses semantics to tie together disparate cases, link them with the literature in new ways, and group them. Now, nearly 3,000 cases (mostly from our archives) are searchable on seven main axes and hundreds of semantic topics, and we have other ideas stemming from this approach. The acceptance rate has increased, because novelty isn’t the only measurement of value — the value is now in connections, and good cases might reveal trends. We have definitely made it harder to disrupt us in the cases area, and have changed the market slightly.
The path to disruptive innovation, as Worlock alludes, means keeping up with your customers and their expectations. This path is where disruptive innovations can sneak in. After all, a disruptive innovation is about changing a market, not just introducing new technologies. What if someone were to make the market for scholarly information about replicability or outcomes or legislative success instead of grants and citations? Who might be in a position to alter incentives that severely? Howard Hughes Medical Institute or Wellcome Trust? Each is many times larger than Elsevier when it comes to total assets, and larger than most major universities — plus, they wield significant political influence with researchers and academics. Already, their investments in open access have changed many practices, most of which have only amplified the current system’s incentives. Or maybe we’re blind to how things are shifting.
With one form of disruption, we’re in good shape — we’re actually doing a good job in scholarly publishing of disrupting ourselves technologically, as I wrote in 2010:
From Nature to Science to Elsevier to the American Institute of Physics to the New England Journal of Medicine to Health Affairs to Wolters-Kluwer to Springer to BMJ to JBC to arXiv to PLoS — a broad swath of incumbents of various stripes have been disrupting themselves more or less simultaneously, learning from each other, experimenting avidly.
What we are not creating are disruptive innovations — those revolutionary shifts in perceived reward systems that completely change the market. Recent discussions have shown that even the most cutting-edge thinkers are still slave to the article and its value chains — from Mendeley to institutional repositories to the alt citation crowds, the article is the currency we trade in.
We’ve disrupted ourselves technologically. But someone, somewhere, may change the rules of the market for scholarly information. Then, and perhaps only then, we’ll know how blind we’ve been.