What Josh means by “fundamental contradiction” is that a disruptive technology, in [Clayton] Christensen’s definition, must not only be behind the cutting edge in some technical dimension, but also satisfy unmet consumer demands. The latter must be uncertain ex ante, otherwise the market leaders would also be developing the disruptive technology. Christensen advises incumbents to “disrupt themselves,” but this assumes they know which technologies will eventually be disruptive. Because they don’t, they must choose among several alternatives, including “do nothing” (i.e., try to exploit late-mover advantage).Tim Kastelle reduces the disrupter's dilemma to one sentence. "This is also what makes the “adapt” choice in “adapt or perish” tricky – we often don’t know to which changes we must adapt." Sometimes that $20 bill in the gutter is genuine, but, often enough, it is counterfeit. And a business plan based on finding $20 bills in the gutter isn't likely to convince a venture capitalist. Dress the business plan up with enough "disruption" and throw in a few "leverages" and"synergies" and perhaps a "value proposition" and perhaps someone will underwrite it.
That, though, provides new research material for historians of technology, and for diligent economists. Consider the creative destruction in big steel.
The success of minimills also required a huge decrease in the price of scrap steel. What these other factors suggest is that any hard and fast rule of technological change will inevitably fall victim to the unpredictable of people. My old advisor used to call this the social system of production, and practically the entire subfield of the history of technology is predicated on this notion rather than Christensen’s brand of technological determinismYes, and the ability to eliminate contaminants from scrap cheaply, and to continuously cast thin slabs on a scale compatible with the throughput of an electric arc furnace. The second idea goes back to Henry Bessemer, but engineers at Bethlehem Steel were able to convince management that working on it would be disruptive in the wrong way. (See Preston, American Steel. Right now it's real cheap at Amazon, but the story of Nucor developing a working thin slab caster and stealing a lot of business from U.S. Steel, Bethlehem, Inland, and Youngstown Sheet, er, LTV is worth the expense of shipping and handling.) Calling out the latest fad as a fad is also a desirable service.
It appears as though Professors Christensen and Lepore have gotten into an exchange of mutual disrespect, but before the nastiness commences, here's an instructive observation from the supposed guru of disruption.
Well, in the first two or three pages, it seems that her motivation is to try to rein in this almost random use of the word “disruption.” The word is used to justify whatever anybody—an entrepreneur or a college student—wants to do. And as I read that, I was delighted that somebody with her standing would join me in trying to bring discipline and understanding around a very useful theory. I’ve been trying to do it for 20 years.Indeed. I hope the latest iteration of Buzzword Bingo includes "disruptive" and "value proposition".
That interview also makes reference to a 2002 theorem that I shall have to look up. I can publish my working notes here. If something resembling a technical paper emerges, that's just a bonus.