As part of my Knowledge Management class, we’ve been looking at innovation, specifically the twin paths of evolutionary innovation and disruptive innovation articulated by Prof. Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School. The base concept is that incumbent companies always win in an evolutionary innovation race (a sequential improvement or step-change – think hybrid cars), while new entrants always win in a disruptive innovation race (think iPods.) But I could see how even evolutionary innovation could be considered disruptive.
This casts the innovation cycle as a change management issue, and that made me think of Harold Innis, the Canadian political scientist whose landmark collection of essays, The Bias of Communication (1951), precede Marshall McLuhan (the Medium is the Message.)
I wrote a paper on how Innis, who saw almost all technological improvements in communication as the path to decline for societies, might view Facebook (answer: not happily.) This material came back to me as I thought about the concept of disruptive innovation, which gets written about favorably nearly all the time. After all, do we want to give up discount retailers, community colleges, cell phones and doc-in-the-box medical clinics?
Christensen likes disruption — he sees it as the only way we move forward. But I can think of the dark side of such changes fairly easily. Ask Kodak about digital cameras. They had the technology well in place for eons, but failed to grasp how it would change conventional photography. Of itself, digital photography is more of an evolutionary innovation, but ever-smaller chips and other, seemingly less important innovations shrunk the cameras, improved the quality and let Canon and others rule the space.
Innis would call that shot — he’d have seen the negatives early on. It’s a change issue, and in a change, only infrequently does everyone win. Usually, someone loses. We have cheap cameras, and professional photography is going the way of the iceman. I’m now looking at innovation as a problem, and suddenly the reasons why companies grapple to make the creative, innovative and inventive processes cogent and repeatable makes a lot of sense. So too the difficulty of organizational learning, and of knowledge collection and application, and the issues around losing talent.
Mechanization has emphasized complexity and confusion; it has been responsible for monopolies in the field of knowledge; and it becomes extremely important to any civilization, if it is not to succumb to the influence of this monopoly of knowledge, to make some critical survey and report. The conditions of freedom of thought are in danger of being destroyed by science, technology, and the mechanization of knowledge, and with them, Western civilization.” (Innis, 1951, p. 190)
Just thinking out loud here.