TITLE: Debunking Christensen? AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: June 26, 2014 11:12 AM DESC: ----- BODY: A lot of people I know have been discussing the recent New Yorker article "debunking" Clayton Christensen's theory of disruptive innovation. I'm withholding judgment, because that usually is the right thing for me to do when discussing theories about systems we don't understand well and critiques of such theories. The best way to find out the answer is to wait for more data. That said, we have seen this before in the space of economics and business management. A few years back, the book Good to Great by James Collins became quite popular on my campus, because our new president, an economist by training, was a proponent of its view of how companies had gone from being merely steady producers to being stars in their markets. He hoped that we could use some of its prescriptions to help transform our university from a decent public comprehensive into a better, stronger institution. But in recent years we have seen critiques of Collins's theory. The problem: some of the companies that Collins touts in the book have fallen on hard times and been unable to sustain their greatness. (As I said, more data usually settles all scores.) Good to Great's prescriptions weren't enough for companies to sustain greatness; maybe they were not sufficient, or even necessary, for achieving (short-term) market dominance. This has long been a weakness of the business management literature. When I was an undergrad double majoring in CS and accounting, I read a lot of case studies about successful companies, and my professors tried to help us draw out truths that would help any company succeed. Neither the authors of the case studies nor the professors seemed aware that we were suffering from a base case of survivor bias. Sure, that set of strategies worked for Coca Cola. Did other companies use the same strategies and fail? If so, why? Maybe Coca Cola just got lucky. We didn't really know. My takeaway from reading most business books of this sort is that they tell great stories. They give us posthoc explanations of complex systems that fit the data at hand, but they don't have much in the way of predictive power. Buying into such theories wholesale as a plan for the future is rarely a good idea. These books can still be useful to people who read them as inspirational stories and a source of ideas to try. For example, I found Collins's idea of "getting the right people on the bus" to be helpful when I was first starting as department head. I took a broad view of the book and learned some things. And that said, I have speculated many times here about the future of universities and even mentioned Christensen's idea of disruption a couple of times [ 1 | 2 ]. Have I been acting on a bad theory? I think the positive reaction to the New Yorker article is really a reaction to the many people who have been using the idea of disruptive innovation as a bludgeon in the university space, especially with regard to MOOCs. Christensen himself has sometimes been guilty of speaking rather confidently about particular ways to disrupt universities. After a period of groupthink in which people know without evidence that MOOCs will topple the existing university model, many of my colleagues are simply happy to have someone speak up on their side of the debate. The current way that universities do business faces a number of big challenges as the balance of revenue streams and costs shifts. Perhaps universities as we know them now will ultimately be disrupted. This does not mean that any technology we throw at the problem will be the disruptive force that topples them. As Mark Guzdial wrote recently,
Moving education onto MOOCs just to be disruptive isn't valuable.
That's the most important point to take away from the piece in the New Yorker: disruptors ultimately have to provide value in the market. We don't know yet if MOOCs or any other current technology experiment in education can do that. We likely won't know until after it starts to happen. That's one of the important points to take away from so much of the business management literature. Good descriptive theories often don't make good prescriptive theories. The risk people inside universities run is falling into a groupthink of their own, in which something very like the status quo is the future of higher education. My colleagues tend to speak in more measured tones than some of the revolutionaries espousing on-line courses and MOOCs, but their words carry an unmistakable message: "What we do is essential. The way we do has stood the test of time. No one can replace us." Some of my colleagues admit ruefully that perhaps something can replace the university as it is, but that we will all be worse off as a result. That's dangerous thinking, too. Over the years, plenty of people who have said, "No one can do what we do as well as we do" have been proven wrong. -----