Delmore Schwartz famously said that even paranoids have enemies. This is worth remembering as we look at the collection of kooks, loonies, ne’er-do-wells, cynics, and hucksters who have taken up the cause of disruptive technology. Recently Jill Lepore wrote a provocative piece in The New Yorker, which was heartily endorsed in the Scholarly Kitchen, in which she took this army of misfits and anarchists to task. Actually, I think she could have gone further. Many of the agents of disruption are reckless and irresponsible, trading on fear as they gleefully propose to tear down just about every institution. Still and all, Lepore got it wrong in attacking the lion of disruptive technology, Clayton Christensen. Christensen does have enemies, and they are following him—and all of us, Lepore included.
The uproar from Lepore’s article means that it is being read by far more than the narrow sliver of the cultural elite that regularly reads The New Yorker. Among Lepore’s stalkers thus are the investors who have made hundreds of millions betting on Christensen’s thesis, sums large enough to require a bit of persuasion to get anyone to seek another rabbi. (Matthew Arnold: Jacobinism loves a rabbi.) Who is this Lepore person they ask, as they (disruptively) Google her. So she teaches at Harvard. Well, that’s neither here nor there. Heck, even Zuck went to Harvard, though he had the good sense to leave. But is she perhaps on the board of any companies? That would be an interesting sign: an organization that can accommodate this rejection of Christensen may invite challengers. Lepore’s article, in other words, is an inverse business opportunity.
Other business types may choose to use Lepore’s piece as a heuristic tool. Since management teams routinely conceal information from their Boards (true in the for-profit and not-for-profit worlds alike), asking the management what they think of Lepore’s article is a way of gauging whether the company is up for the task of competing in a relentless and heartless marketplace, which is the only kind there is. So you like the Lepore piece. Have you considered looking for another job?
Lepore’s piece would be easier to dismiss if it were not so well written–this is The New Yorker, after all. Here is my favorite passage:
There wasn’t much to do. Mainly, we sat at our desks and wrote wishy-washy poems on keyboards manufactured by Digital Equipment Corporation, left one another sly messages on pink While You Were Out sticky notes, swapped paperback novels—Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Gabriel García Márquez, that kind of thing—and, during lunch hour, had assignations in empty, unlocked offices.
I laughed out loud when I read that. But afterward I began to ponder if Lepore had properly cited that disruptive technology of disruptive technologies, the Pill, which made casual and amusing assignations in empty offices common. It’s a funny thing about disruptive technology: we like it when we wield the sword, but curse it when the sword threatens our own heads. (Ned Stark: This sword is made of Valyrian steel.)
I came to admire Christensen because he helped to explain a puzzling business situation for me. In 1999 I was running an Internet software company called Tribal Voice. We had been approached by AT&T about a deal, which soon escalated into high-level discussions about an acquisition. Ultimately AT&T declined to buy the company (which is why I continue to work for a living), but during the negotiations I traveled to the AT&T headquarters in Basking Ridge, NJ a number of times and got to know many of their people fairly well.
I was profoundly impressed by AT&T and its people. They were smart, worked long days, listened hard, and studied things carefully. These were the kind of people who did their homework. I was shown a library of “briefing books” they had prepared on companies of interest to them. I had never seen the like before, despite having spent some time in large media corporations. How could this company, with its global reach, its best-in-class network, a balance sheet richer than Croesus, and it people, its very, very talented group of people, do anything but grow and expand, continuing to dominate the world of telecommunications as it had for a century?
Back home in Silicon Valley, though, it was a different story. “You had a meeting at AT&T?” someone said to me. “Those idiots.” Already the word was out that AT&T did not “get” the Internet. They had, after all, famously turned it down when the U.S. government proposed that AT&T take it over. (Can you imagine that? Can you imagine what it would mean to own the Internet?) AT&T was big and bureaucratic and their people stupid, stupid, stupid. One of my Board members assured me that if I were able to close the deal, his venture capital firm would do everything possible to make sure that I would not have to go to work there for a period of time. It was a retelling of David and Goliath, and all bets were on the unwashed tribe of Davids in Santa Clara and San Jose. No network operations center, no briefing books, not even a necktie.
AT&T ultimately stumbled and was itself sold to one of its former subsidiaries, which took the AT&T name. The new firm is in fact a leader in providing Internet access (poor service notwithstanding), which is a cruel irony. It was a couple years before I could explain this to myself, however. That was when I stumbled on Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma.
The Innovator’s Dilemma helps to explain why some of the best and well-managed companies, with resources that should make the competition tremble, somehow or other lag upstarts in coming up with innovations. We see this very clearly in the world of scholarly communications, where the Gold OA model was developed first not by Elsevier or Springer but by BMC, and where community sharing networks had their beginning at Mendeley. Established companies come up with backward-looking “new” ideas like the Article of the Future and then have to go out and acquire the likes of Mendeley to bring real innovation in house. Go ahead and argue about what is and is not an innovation and when an innovation is disruptive. Meanwhile, if you have a truly new idea, don’t you think you would be better off doing it outside the confines of a big company? When it comes to innovation, people tend to vote with their feet.
Established companies know who their customers are, and that is their undoing. They do the homework. They aim to please those customers and come up with feature after feature that meets the needs of those customers. In the world of journals publishing this has taken the form of endless requirements to service the largest sales channel, academic libraries. So now we have such frills as endless metrics, COUNTER compliance, rules for transitioning journals from one publisher to another, etc., etc. Some readers will leap up and say those things are absolutely necessary, and for some markets, they are. Meanwhile, barebones services are cropping up everywhere including most dramatically at PLOS ONE. The key to PLOS ONE is not new features but defeaturing, a stripped-down form of peer review which is trumpeted as the new lemonade. The Gold OA business has developed an entirely new class of customer, authors. No wonder that Elsevier, Springer et al., did not come up with this first: they were focused on libraries.
The question that Christensen answered for me was that AT&T could be smart but still get it wrong. It doesn’t matter how hard you work if you are looking at the wrong thing. You can do all the homework and master the recommended reading, but the important thing is not to know everything but to know the one thing that will make a difference. How to know that one thing remains a mystery, but at least Christensen tells us where to look: fewer features, a lower cost structure, a new class of customer. People who complain that PLOS ONE does not use traditional peer review entirely miss the point.
Lepore, of course, was trained to do the homework and criticizes Christensen when he doesn’t hand it in himself. But chastizing Christensen for the lunacy of his followers is simply wrong. It’s comparable to blaming Nietzsche for Hitler or the Beatles for the music (?) of Metallica.
The New Yorker and the class of public intellectuals like Lepore may or not be disrupted themselves, but what makes them vulnerable is their dismissal of the possibility. You can’t wait for the evidence that the person who is holding a gun to your head is going to fire it. You have to act now, even if that means relaxing some of the standards and procedures that have come to define the institutions in which you have risen. We don’t know if MOOCs will nibble at the authority and hegemony of Harvard, but we know that the people behind them will try. Don’t turn around but someone is following you. I said don’t turn around.