Assessing the Impact of Disruptive Innovation on the Profession of Information Development
In this issue of Best Practices, Bill Hackos discusses Clayton Christensen’s two works on innovation, The Innovator’s Dilemma (Harvard 1997) and The Innovator’s Solution (Harvard 2003). We also reprint Ginny Redish’s original review of The Innovator’s Dilemma from our June 2001 issue and my review of The Innovator’s Solution from our June 2004 issue. The two books have influenced the planning for the 6th annual Best Practices conference, both in selecting speakers and in selecting the conference themes: Innovation and Productivity.
Christensen introduces us to the concept of a disruptive innovation. In a disruptive innovation, a company dominates its market until a competitor comes along with an innovation that takes over one segment of the company’s market. Typically, the market segment is not particularly profitable to the parent company. However, the competition finds a niche in serving that market segment, often with an innovation that is considerably less costly and simpler to operate than the company’s products in that market. The disruptive competitor begins to change the market, chipping away at the company’s dominance and leaving it with high-end, profitable markets that gradually become smaller and less viable. Eventually, the disruptor succeeds in capturing all of the market by offering less costly but adequately performing products.
Christensen illustrates a disruptive innovation by describing the steel industry. Disruptive competitors, offering less expensive products based on less expensive processes, eventually took over the industry from the great steel companies. Those companies, in business since the turn of the twentieth century, became less and less competitive until no market was left for them at all.
Not only are companies susceptible to disruptive innovations, so are entire professional fields. Our profession of information development is experiencing a disruptive innovation as competitors from low-cost economies in Asia, South America, and Eastern Europe are chipping away at the dominance of the higher cost practitioners in the US and Western Europe. At first, disruptive competitors offer to take over work that no one else wants to do. We have seen offshore outsourcing agencies taking over functions like customer support, a field with high costs and problems with maintaining a well-trained staff in the US. High training costs, frequent turnover, and lack of skilled workers have all contributed to the disruption of the customer support field by low-cost foreign competitors.
Information development appears to be sliding down the same competitive slope. Disruptors take over the least desirable jobs, maintaining legacy documentation or documenting products with simple information requirements like computer hardware. Eventually, however, the disruptors learn how to handle the high-end work.
In Bill Hackos’s article, learn more about the phenomena of disruptive innovation and consider how we might combat the seemingly inevitable take-over of the technical communication field.
Join us at the 6th annual Best Practices conference in Chatham, Massachusetts. We focus on innovative behaviors that have the potential to change the face of the profession. The speakers demonstrate how they have aligned with corporate strategic direction to increase productivity and customer satisfaction by employing smart business processes. In each case, a leader with a vision of the future and an understanding of the business realities has directed a team committed to change. We can all learn much from their experiences.