• Emergent v. Disruptive Technologies

    by  • August 2, 2011 • Disruptive technologies

    We are constantly getting hammered by new technologies – smart phones, social media, analytics, customer management systems, data visualization, etc. These technologies are all disrupting our status quo. But how do you identify a technology as disruptive and are these same technologies emergent too?

    Last week I presented on disruptive technologies at the Naval Post-Graduate School for a class of senior Navy leaders. I explained that most technologies have been around for significant lengths of time before they began to impact us. Two of the reoccurring questions they had was what is the difference between an emerging technology and a disruptive technology and how do you gauge the magnitude of a disruption? The example the class gave was Facebook. I explained that Facebook wasn’t really emergent in that it started back in 2004 and that the Facebook platform is over four years old but it is definitely disruptive.

    Why does this matter? Because businesses need to be scanning the horizon for emerging and disruptive technologies that they can use to build a competitive advantage or at least minimize the impact of. IBM, Borders Books, newspapers like the Rocky Mountain News, and other companies are all examples of firms that failed to scan the horizon, recognize the disruptive impact of an emerging technology, and appropriate adjust for it and are now out of business.

    So how should we think about emergent and disruptive technologies? I suggested to the class that:

    • Emergent technologies are at the beginning of the technology lifecycle. Emergent technologies are technological advances that are currently in development and/or nearing deployment that have the potential to displace a current technology or shift business processes, organizations, culture, and other areas. Not all emergent technologies get to the point of disrupting a current technology
    • Disruptive technologies are causing changes. Disruptive technologies are are innovations that replaces an existing technology or causes significant shifts in business processes, organizations, or culture, in ways that are unexpected by the broader market. Not all technologies are disruptive.
    • Take a Ven view of technology. When it comes to figuring out the difference between an emergent and disruptive technology, the way I think about it is similar to the way you may have learned logic in college. Think of a two circle ven diagram, one larger circle being emergent technologies and the other smaller circle being disruptive technologies. There is always some degree of overlap between the two.

    There is always overlap between emergent and disruptive technologies. The amount of the overlap, or the transition period where the technology is both emergent and disruptive, is dependent primarily on time. This could be the time to adoption, acceptances, distribution, or any number of other factors.

    The second question they asked was how do you gauge the magnitude of a disruption. I explained to some members of the class that the magnitude of a disruption is a factor of the type of disruption, time, and the amount of displacement. This breaks out as:

    • What type of disruption is it? Is it displacing a primary technology, are there business process impacts, and is it a new technology or a combined technology? Some technologies, by their very nature, are more disruptive then others. Atomic weapons, the combustion engine, and the airplane are all examples of disruptive technologies.
    • How long does the disruption take? We are actually talking about how long after a disruption begins to take place that a business is able to com back to a balance point. Are we talking weeks, months, or years? The disruption caused by social media is still in full bloom, seven years after Facebook was first created.
    • How large of a displacement is taking place? This looks at how large of a potential technology shift could take place. For example, cloud computing could be a very large displacement if it were to replace all of the desktop applications. I don’t think that will happen, but that has to be part of the evaluation.

    Every technology has a lifecycle and as part of that lifecycle each technology that is adopted starts out as emergent, begins to transition to disruptive, remains disruptive for a period of time, and then eventually shifts to a static state of adoption. Businesses need to have a scanning process in place that assists them in recognizing emergent and disruptive technologies far off on the horizon before they have the opportunity to significantly impact the business.

    The Bottom Line: Emergent and disruptive technologies still catch a number of companies unaware. Do you see a difference between emergent and disruptive technologies?  How do you prepare your business for the impact of these types of technologies? What current emergent and disruptive technologies are you watching?