Saturday, August 20, 2005

One man's Sustaining Innovation is another man's Disruptive Innovation

Students of Disruption Theory often get hung up assessing whether a technology is a “sustaining innovation” or a “disruptive innovation”. Oftentimes the hang up is caused by not realizing that the same technology can be considered sustaining and disruptive at the same time. It all depends on which competitors you'd like to compare the innovation to.

For example, consider whether blogging is a sustaining or disruptive innovation. If you compare blogging to an email alias, it is a more effective way for a journalist to attract a following because there are more standard ways, such as RSS feeds and search engines such as Technorati, for readers to find and consume relevant blogs than there are for readers to find and consume content from an email alias. Compared to email aliases, blogging is a sustaining innovation.

However, if you compare blogging to a newspaper, it is a less effective way to charge readers for content and therefore uninteresting to newspaper companies as a line of business. By turning their backs on blogging to make newspapers even better, newspaper companies are falling into the innovator’s dilemma. To newspapers, blogging is a disruptive technology.

To one incumbent, the new technology is an improvement along the desired trajectory of innovation and so to that incumbent the technology is sustaining. But to another incumbent, the same new technology could have poor performance and command lower margins yet disrupt that incumbent in the long run: in this case the technology is disruptive to that incumbent.

So when analyzing a technology according to Disruption Theory, it is important to list out the incumbent competing alternatives and to assess whether the new technology is sustaining or disruptive to each incumbent.


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