Article Review of: Yu, D., & Hang, C. C. (2010). A reflective review of disruptive innovation theory. International Journal of Management Reviews, 12, 435-452. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2370.2009.00272.x

Abstract

This literature review examines Christensen’s (1997) Disruptive Innovation Theory, which proposed why larger, successful companies underperformed smaller, under-resourced companies.  Christensen’s central thesis is that a disruptive innovation provides a substitute experience or product at a lower cost. The article describes and interprets the basic notion and possible misunderstandings of the Disruptive Innovation Theory.  The authors identify and assess research on the internal, external, marketing, and technological factors that contribute to successful disruptive innovations.  This analysis leads to the identification of key areas for future disruptive innovation research.  Finally, the authors present practical obstacles and catalysts for disruptive innovation in the form of managerial implications.  The authors’ stated goal in writing the article was to organize the scattered literature on disruptive innovation and to present opportunities for future research.

Personal Reflection

The role of innovation in higher education is an important topic to me as an administrator and scholar.  Similar to the research findings reported by Murray (2008), I find that many institutions of higher education resist innovation as a remedy for its problems.  In fact, substantial research has promoted the need for innovation in the sector (Christensen & Eyring, 2011; Selingo, 2013; Zemsky, 2013), including those pundits who call for an end to the traditional college experience (Carey, 2015).  As an administrator, I lead my university’s nontraditional academic programs, and I continually improve existing modalities while also searching for new opportunities.  I need a theory to guide my search and implementation of educational innovations.  These practical and scholarly views support my conviction of the need for an appropriate innovation theory in higher education.

Christensen’s (1997) Disruptive Innovation (DI) Theory proposed why larger, successful companies underperformed smaller, under-resourced companies.  Christensen’s central thesis is that a disruptive innovation provides a substitute experience or product at a lower cost. Yu and Hang (2010) explored the DI Theory to (a) examine the basic notion and potential misunderstandings of the theory, thereby testing its capacity to predict disruptive innovations; (b) assess the development of the theory in order to promote future research areas; and (c) consider the practical implications.  The article’s significant contribution to literature relates to its identification of the four enablers of potential disruptive innovations, including internal, external, marketing, and technological factors.

The article intrigued me because it summarized the assessment of Christensen’s (1997) theory and the broader definition of disruptive innovation within the technology industry.  Of particular importance was Yu and Hang’s (2010) evaluation of various quantitative measures to establish a disruptiveness scale.  Such scales could lead to further research in the quantitative domain, thus broadening the appeal and acceptability of the theory.

By affirming the theory’s predictive capacity, Yu and Hang (2010) raised an important question: “What essentially would decide or contribute to a firm’s success in disruptive innovation?” (p. 441).  This question led to a review of the literature, which categorized the different enablers and inhibitors of a successful disruption.  These enablers included the (a) internal factors of the firm’s organization; (b) external factors of the firm’s business environment; (c) marketing factors that related to consumers’ expectation; and (d) technological factors (Yu & Hang, 2010).  This empirical evidence provides a framework for implementing a potential disruptive innovation within a higher education institution.  Further, these factors could assist with the development of an instrument to measure disruptive innovation.

The authors presented future research ideas based on the enablers and inhibitors of disruptive innovation. Yu and Hang (2010) focused on the importance of various agents (e.g. middle managers and front-line employees) within an organizational context who could advance or diminish disruptions.  The authors suggested that disruptive innovation is often a byproduct of bottom-up ideation and support (Yu & Hang, 2010).  Within a higher education setting, this might lead to an analysis of where substantive innovations could emerge.  Although historically there has been a proclivity toward administrator innovations, the research might support the empowerment of front-line staff in instigating change.

One last future research area is an analysis of the external environment.  In the authors’ words, “What are the environmental determinants of disruptive innovation?” (Yu & Hang, 2010, p. 449).  Are the determinants economic, behavioral, sociological, or a combination of the above?  It is not enough to assume that a particular innovation will disrupt an industry because of its low cost or unique consumer base.  A disruptive innovation must exist within an environment ripe for disruption; a genius innovation alone will not accomplish this feat.

The review of the literature provided a paradigmatic shift in the disruptive innovation domain by highlighting the enablers and inhibitors of disruption.  This paradigm presents significant opportunities for higher education research.  The U.S. higher education environment is ripe for disruption based on economic, consumer, and sociological pressures (Christensen & Eyring, 2011; Denneen & Dretler, 2012; Selingo, 2013; Zemsky, 2013).  The implementation of a disruptive innovation within an organization requires consideration of the internal, external, consumer, and technological factors.

My university continually assesses its educational offerings and considers future innovations.  As an administrator, I need a tool to evaluate the disruptive capacity of a particular innovation.  This tool might lead to the development of an implementation plan that would consider the enabling factors of such innovations.  As a scholar, I wish to study whether competency-based education (CBE) is a disruptive innovation and the effects of this modality on the higher education sector.  This article provides a framework to develop or identify an instrument to measure the disruptive of an innovation.  Moreover, studying CBE provides a case study to evaluate the DI Theory and its applicability to higher education.   

References

Carey, K. (2015). The end of college: Creating the future of learning and the university of everywhere. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

Christensen, C. (1997). The innovator’s dilemma: When new technologies cause great firms to fail. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Christensen, C., & Eyring, H. (2011). The innovative university: Changing the DNA of higher education from the inside out. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Denneen, J., & Dretler, T. (2012). The financially sustainable university. Retrieved from Bain & Company, Inc. website: http://www.bain.com/Images/Bain_Brief_The_financially_ sustainable_university.pdf

Murray, G. (2008). On the cutting edge (of Torpor): Innovation and the pace of change in American higher education. AACE Journal, 16(1), 47-61.  Retrieved from http://www.editlib.org/p/24217/

Selingo, J. J. (2013). College (Un)bound: The future of higher education and what it means for students. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Yu, D., & Hang, C. C. (2010). A reflective review of disruptive innovation theory. International Journal of Management Reviews, 12, 435-452. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2370.2009.00272.x

Zemsky, R. (2013). Checklist for change: Making American higher education a sustainable enterprise. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutger University Press.