Word of the Day: Disruptive

Oct 18, 2016 05.00PM |
 

by Tan Chu Chze

THERE might have been a (brief) time in my life when I was disruptive in class.

The conditions were simple. I was a teenager full of hormones and hubris, and I didn’t like my form teacher. As a class, we set out to make life difficult for him. By and large, we succeeded.

The satisfaction of disrupting our teacher came at a cost, though. There were many days when class became too caustic for learning, and we lost time on our syllabus. Our teacher, I’m certain, suffered a great deal from our bullying. We drove him up the wall, then out the school. We never saw him again.

That, in my mind’s eye, is what ‘disruption’ looks like. To ‘disrupt’ is to break apart, to cause a rupture. It could be a math lesson in school, or an MRT train’s journey. Either way, disruption prevents progress from happening, and usually, to everyone’s loss. It’s not something desirable at all.

Strangely enough, this negative connotation to ‘disruption’ does not scale when the disruption happens in the business world. In fact it is highly fashionable, even, to disrupt.

This change had its origins in 1995, when an academic named Clayton M. Christensen noticed a relationship between new technologies and companies. He found that emerging technologies could change the way consumers’ needs were addressed. Businesses that failed to predict and adopt these technologies eventually suffered when consumer demands shifted. Because these technologies affected entire markets to the detriment of many companies, Christensen called these technologies “disruptive”.

Later on, Christensen realised that it wasn’t the technologies per se that were ‘disrupting’ markets – it was the business models that the new technologies supported. Hence, he coined “disruptive innovation” to describe just that.

While these terminologies seem commonplace now in the vocabulary of business news, it started creeping into everyday use only in the early 2010s. That was around the time when Apple was gaining traction for changing the computing, music and mobile phone industries, and not just for its bravery. It is interesting to note that Apple doesn’t get cited as a disruptor anymore. I guess once it secured significant market shares, it became susceptible to being disrupted.

These days, Uber and Airbnb are taken to be the role model disruptors instead. ‘Disruptiveness’ really does belong to relatively new entrants in a market only — like teenagers in a classroom. And like disruptive teens, there’s a certain glory in being able to successfully disrupt a market.

The only difference is that such open defiance against dominant market players is more openly recognised as a good thing. It’s the quintessential entrepreneurial dream: be Steve Jobs and Jack Ma. Quit school, have brilliant ideas, work hard, face rejection, work hard anyway, make an awesome app that will confound the world and change life as we know it… (and also earn lots of money.)

Of course, the situation for the disrupted won’t look so bright and cheery. I’m not sure if any business would be as disgruntled as my ex-form teacher to leave its market. But, we do know how unhappy many taxi drivers were with the introduction of Uber and Grab. Until some of them started using the apps themselves…

But it seems that all in all, Singapore is embracing a world of disruptions as a reality we need to face. PM Lee went as far as to call it a “defining challenge” in his latest National Day Rally speech.

Not only that, his message to the country mirrored an important realisation my unhappy class had to arrive at: We have to learn and grow from our disruptions. For my secondary school class, that change was palpable. A new form teacher we respected took over. Our disruptions stopped, and the class calmed down and settled into a happier, functioning new normal.

But, good riddance to our previous teacher.

 

Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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