Debunking 3 myths about digital disruption

There are fads, and there are disruptors. Here’s how to recognize the difference and carve out a strategy to ensure your organization ends up on the winning side of disruption.


Poor Christopher Cross. Who? Exactly!

Cross should be a household name. He cleaned up at the 1980 Grammys (winning best new artist as well as song, album and record of the year), then won the Oscar for best song in 1981.

If you’ve never heard of Cross, there’s a good reason: he got disrupted. Actually, Cross and the entire music industry got disrupted at 12:01 a.m. ET on Aug. 1, 1981 when MTV debuted. The first video ever played on the new channel was for a tune fittingly called Video Killed the Radio Star.

The video (with its skinny neckties and Commodore 64-esque graphics) propelled The Buggles song to No. 1 in 10 countries. And Christopher Cross? His star fell just as quickly as it had risen, largely because he failed to exploit the music video trend. In fact, when MTV hit the airwaves, Cross still hadn’t made a single music video.

“The reality is, disruption is always good for someone — and it’s always bad for someone,” Gartner VP David Mitchell said in a recent webinar on digital disruption.

Directly referring to Video Killed the Radio Star, Mitchell said every organization must carve out a strategy to ensure they end up on the winning side of disruption rather than the dust heap of 8-track tapes.

To assist enterprises in that effort, Mitchell set out to debunk some myths about digital disruption. Here are three of the biggest myths he tackled.

#1: Any big change is disruption 

I asked earlier if you remember Christopher Cross. But have you even heard of The Buggles? Probably not. Although the British band capitalized on the music video trend, they were ultimately a one-hit wonder. That’s not true disruption, that’s a fad.

“Disruption is a fundamental shift in a system or environment,” Mitchell explained. “A fad tends to be a short-term phenomenon, whereas a disruption is long-term change, a durable change.”

As examples, Mitchell labeled Second Life and Pokémon Go as fads, but said the technologies underpinning them — augmented and virtual reality — will prove disruptive over the long haul.

Mitchell listed other signs of a true disruption or disruptor:

  • It displaces a multibillion-dollar industry or creates an entirely new one
  • It increases or decreases a key business performance measure (such as revenue, profits or spending) by 20 to 90 per cent for more than 25 per cent of organizations in one sector
  • It displaces more than 10 per cent of the workforce in a specific industry or job role
  • It causes more than 30 per cent of consumers to spend more than 10 per cent of their free time or more than five per cent of their disposable income in a different way

Think cloud computing. Smartphones. Stuff that completely changes the game.

#2: Disruption is only for giants

Mitchell said many organizations believe only behemoths like Amazon can be digital disruptors.

“The digital giants often get there first. But the bulk of disruption happens across thousands of small, medium and large companies,” said Mitchell.

As he pointed out, Uber was a startup when it disrupted the global taxi industry by harnessing a mixture of disruptive technologies: mobile, geo-location and mobile payment.

Mitchell’s advice? Consider copying the big disruptors’ best practices, not just their products.

“While we can’t all necessarily be Google, we might be able to emulate some of the things they do, like giving (employees) 20 per cent of their time to be able to go off and work on (side) projects,” he suggested.

#3: Disruption is someone else’s problem

Mitchell said many IT managers view disruption as “a strategic planning role or (they) say that’s the CEO’s role, that’s not my job.”

In reality, he argued, disruption isn’t solely IT’s responsibility or strictly a line of business responsibility: “It needs to be more of a group effort.”

Mitchell urged CIOs and enterprise architects to “get a seat at the table by being interested and willing to take on looking at these types of things, and helping with the process of identifying what your organization should be doing about it.”

To recap: treat disruption as an opportunity, not just a threat. Don’t hop on the bandwagon of every fad affecting your industry. Borrow disruptive practices from big winners. Look at disruption (whether striving for it or reacting to it) from a business and operational standpoint, not just purely as a product-oriented technology play.

Finally, don’t ignore disruption. Plan for it, aim for it, just don’t let it pass you by. As The Buggles sang in their one and only hit:

In my mind and in my car
We can’t rewind
We’ve gone too far.

Image: erhui1979/iStock

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