There’s a Disruption in the Harvard Faculty Over Disruption

One professor's critique of another's popular theory has caused a disagreement.

TechCrunch: Disrupt image by TechCrunch on Flickr

TechCrunch: Disrupt image by TechCrunch on Flickr

At a university like Harvard, the faculty is supposed to debate and disagree with one another. Sometimes this gets out of hand, as when a group of alumni and faculty helped found Yale. Much of the time, the debate interests a limited few players within the ivory tower. Recently, an intellectual disagreement between two Harvard professors has played out on a more public stage.

The subject is the business theory of “innovative disruption.” No doubt the word “disrupt” has become a big, fat target in recent years due to its heavy use in the tech world.“Stop ‘Disrupting’ Everything,” Slate complained last year between the “TechCrunch: Disrupt NY” conference and the “TechCrunch: Disrupt SF” one. Both the word and the conference were lampooned on the HBO show “Silicon Valley” earlier this year. As with anything this widely admired, disruption was due for some backlash, and already, it had received some.

Enter Harvard history professor and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore, who penned a long critique of the original theory last month. Like others, she described a world in which “disruption” has become a gospel-like term:

[E]veryone is either disrupting or being disrupted. There are disruption consultants, disruption conferences, and disruption seminars. This fall, the University of Southern California is opening a new program: “The degree is in disruption,” the university announced. “Disrupt or be disrupted,” the venture capitalist Josh Linkner warns in a new book, “The Road to Reinvention.”

But her real target was the original reasoning behind the theory. put forward in a paper and a book by Harvard Business Professor Clay Christensen in the late 1990s. Christensen described a process wherein new companies create a lower quality product or service to capture the lower end of an established market, then grab more of the market share until they eventually overtake the existing market leaders. He uses case studies from a bunch of industries, including personal computers and steel manufacturing. Lepore suggests that people no longer question this theory or the research that went into it, then she attempts to poke holes in it:

Christensen’s sources are often dubious and his logic questionable. His single citation for his investigation of the “disruptive transition from mechanical to electronic motor controls,” in which he identifies the Allen-Bradley Company as triumphing over four rivals, is a book called “The Bradley Legacy,” an account published by a foundation established by the company’s founders. This is akin to calling an actor the greatest talent in a generation after interviewing his publicist. “Use theory to help guide data collection,” Christensen advises.

The article was controversial, of course, as is anything that takes on such a big target so openly. It was especially controversial with her colleague, Christensen, who sounded pretty taken aback and wounded. He told the Boston Globe, “I’m really mad about what she’s done and tried to do … I thought this was misguided and misinformed. Why in the world would she try to do that to me?” He had a longer response in an interview with Businessweek.

Of course, this doesn’t seem like a rift large enough to spur the founding of a new rival university. But it is more dramatic than your average, run-of-the-mill faculty disagreement. Lepore didn’t take down her target in one shot. But if her goal was to get people to at least think critically about a word they’ve come to use reflexively, to consider their feelings on it and either defend it or abandon it, she’s certainly spurred a lot of that on the internet and beyond. It was, in other words, quite the disruption. (And no we’re not using that word right.)