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Carrying The Torch Of Disruption Forward

Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma and a Harvard Business School professor, died last month. File photo

Disruption. Normally, this word suggests a negative connotation. The talkative student was disruptive to the rest of the class, or the reckless driver was disruptive to the flow of traffic. Dictionary.com lists the following words as related to disruptive: upsetting, disturbing, troublesome, rowdy, troublemaking. Yet this word is used routinely in society and business, often with a positive, or at least neutral, connotation. Why is this?

I believe this unusual transformation can be credited to the pioneering work of the late Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, who in his 1992 Ph.D. thesis developed the theory of disruptive innovation.

At the start of 2019, I became the first Chief Disruption Officer at the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business. This new and unique role was created to help the college address the question of how a business school should respond to the disruptive pressures impacting society. These might be driven by emerging technology, social activism, political instability, disease outbreaks, or natural disasters. For example, while the drive for automation has existed for decades, today’s automation threatens to impact both blue-and white-collar positions, causing some to suggest that tens of millions of jobs are under threat. Likewise, the increased recognition of humanity’s impact on the environment has generated unprecedented social pressure on corporations. This resulted in the recent Davos Manifesto, which states that a company must engage all its stakeholders and not simply its shareholders. Jeffrey Brown, dean of Gies College of Business, recognized that it was clearly no longer business as usual. He not only created the Chief Disruption Officer position, but hired me, a professor with a Ph.D. in astrophysics, to lead this effort.

As I thought and read more about disruption, I became aware of Professor Christensen’s work. Given my background, it is probably not surprising that we never crossed paths; I was, however, very aware of his work. While I don’t recall who first introduced me to his writings, I do know that on my bookshelves Christensen’s works are behind only those of Richard Feynman and Malcom Gladwell in the number of volumes. Perhaps more importantly, his work has shown me how one simple idea — disruptive innovation — can provide guidance to understand and (more hopefully) improve how we train business students, how we partner with business leaders, and how we strive to make society better by embracing — not fearing — disruption. So I, along with many others, mourned his passing on January 23.

I won’t try to restate Christensen’s original theory of disruptive innovation, but if I were asked to give an elevator pitch for it, I would say that it explains how a business can do everything right, yet still fail. Why? Because the singular focus on doing things right today means missing the disruptive opportunity of tomorrow. Following his lead, others pushed these ideas, often by collaborating with him, into fields such as public education, higher education, and medicine.

At Gies, rather than writing about it, we are experimenting with disruptive innovation. As we embrace the important responsibility of preparing business students for an increasingly digital world, we can often feel constrained by an accredited curricula, semesters, and defined programs. As a result, we need to get creative about how we can expose our future business leaders to these important disruptive forces. But at Gies we are forming interdisciplinary student teams to develop — in an action-learning model — actual products and solutions that can provide insights for both the project sponsor, like a faculty member or a company executive, and the students in how an emerging technology might enable new opportunities. We provide extracurricular training opportunities to learn new tools and technologies from industry leaders, like robotic process automation (RPA), blockchain, and automated machine learning (AutoML). And we partner with other thought leaders from academia and industry to peer into the future through topical symposia and public engagements.

While I may never have had the chance to discuss our ideas and plans with Professor Christensen, I hope that he would approve of our approach. I do know that I will forever be grateful to him for opening the door to the world of disruptive innovation — a door through which countless others have entered.

Dr. Robert Brunner is associate dean for innovation and chief disruption officer at Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.