Sunday, November 6, 2011

Theory of Disruption

Clayton Christensen developed a concept called Theory of Disruption, which is based on a business model and argues why one company can start from the bottom and eventually become more successful than an existing, well-regarded company.  This "take-over" is where the disruption occurs.  Christensen summarizes this phenomenon nicely, "An innovation that is disruptive allows a whole new population of consumers access to a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money or a lot of skill."  He is arguing that existing companies that are doing well can eventually either falter or become just average with the development of new companies that provide the same service just better and more widespread with easier access for most.  He gave the examples of cellular phone companies disrupting the fixed-line telephone companies, community colleges disrupting four-year universities, discount retailers disrupting full-service department stores, and retail medical clinics disrupting traditional doctor offices.

Christensen speaks about how in every market there are two trajectories.  The first trajectory is that of performance improvement.  This is the decision of companies to improve their performance to keep them relevant and high in the market.  There is another trajectory, however, that is to create better and better products.  This trajectory is where you see the disrupting innovators at work and is the trajectory that makes those companies surpass others.

In thinking about Christensen's ideas and his theory of disruption, I can't help but think of education and how this theory applies there.  What I came up with is in the area of education reform.  It seems that there are lots of people in the education world that want to create this disruptive innovation that will surpass our standardized education that we have today.  Where I am seeing the most success is with charter schools.  First, private schools provided an "escape" from a failing educational system because they were able to do what they wanted and accept who they wanted and created an education worth receiving that was valued and "on the right track".  The problem with private schools is that they are highly selective, do not provide a lot of diversity, and are usually very costly.  What is happening now, however, is the development of charter schools and these schools have been the disruption to both private schools and the public educational system.  Charter schools provide services sometimes parallel with private education (such as project-based learning, more technology, more art, more resources that public education might not have depending on the area in which the school is in, etc.)  The benefit of these charter schools over private schools is that charter schools are public, so they are free.  Charter schools are providing a good service, at a level that more students can access, so this is why they are a disruptive innovation.  One negative thing about charter schools, however, is that they are still selective.  I do not think that they are selective at the level of private schools but they still cannot let all students in.  I think that they are a step in the right direction of bettering education, but I would still like to see reform at the public education level so that instead of sending students "fleeing" to private schools or charter schools, the education is good enough for students to want to stay.  But then again, according to this Theory of Disruption, isn't it inevitable that these other innovative companies will surpass the existing ones, no matter what?  I argue that the existing companies need to innovate as well and they can stay competitive as a result.  


  1. Perhaps this "Theory of Disruption" in an educational sense can be the impetus to move all schools forward. The Charter schools and Private Schools may provide Public Schooling with a model that works better than our current one - while still being available to the masses.

    Interesting take on this theory and its application to education...

  2. I really like your example of private schools being disrupted by charter schools. I find it even more interesting about how they are trying to push or disrupt traditional schools with free public school ONLINE!!! I SO do not agree with this idea, but it is interesting to see if this ends up being successful or not.

  3. Cool. The thought of charter schools and public schools never crossed my mind. But its so true. I don't remember how he said it in his video and blog, but I like how you used the term "take-over" to describe the disruption.

  4. I really like your example of the Charter schools being the disruptor! In comment to Melissa's post, it's crazy how schools are doing classes online! San Dieguito school district (I work at Torrey Pines & Carmel Valley), the high schools offer certain courses that are offered completely online and they don't have to come to school during that time. They're actually testing out this program, but I definitely don't agree with allowing everyone to take these courses, but I guess they're aiming to help students who are behind in credits to graduate as college prep.

  5. Like the previous commenters, I really appreciated your charter school/public school example. You obviously did your reading above and beyond the web page/video! I'm noticing a lot of talk about charter schools in the book.