The New Yorker has a article criticizing Clayton Christensen and his theory of disruptive innovation. It's snarkily written and the author has an axe to grind: in some parts, it's less a critique of Christensen than a moral indictment of Silicon Valley, with the author writing that "innovation is the idea of progress jammed into a criticism-proof jack-in-the-box."
Nonetheless, the article makes some interesting points. Its most damning claim is that the case studies Christensen uses in his first book, The Innovator's Dilemma, distort business history so that it fits his theory. One of Christensen's big ideas is that established companies have various institutional biases that prevent them from capitalizing on disruptive innovations, but the article says that isn't so:
Seagate didn’t start shipping 3.5-inch drives until 1988, and by
then, Christensen argues, it was too late... In fact, Seagate Technology
was not felled by disruption. Between 1989 and 1990, its sales doubled,
reaching $2.4 billion, “more than all of its U.S. competitors
combined,” according to an industry report...
In his account of the mechanical-excavator industry, Christensen argues that established companies that built cable-operated excavators were slow to recognize the importance of the hydraulic excavator, which was developed in the late nineteen-forties. “Almost the entire population of mechanical shovel manufacturers was wiped out by a disruptive technology—hydraulics—that the leaders’ customers and their economic structure had caused them initially to ignore,” he argues. Christensen counts thirty established companies in the nineteen-fifties and says that, by the nineteen-seventies, only four had survived the entrance into the industry of thirteen disruptive newcomers, including Caterpillar, O. & K., Demag, and Hitachi. But, in fact, many of Christensen’s “new entrants” had been making cable-operated shovels for years. O. & K., founded in 1876, had been making them since 1908; Demag had been building excavators since 1925, when it bought a company that built steam shovels; Hitachi, founded in 1910, sold cable-operated shovels before the Second World War. Manufacturers that were genuinely new to excavation equipment tended to sell a lot of hydraulic excavators, if they had a strong distribution network, and then not do so well. And some established companies disrupted by hydraulics didn’t do half as badly as Christensen suggests.
I read The Innovator's Dilemma a few years ago and thought it was very interesting, but I took its accuracy for granted. Now I have no idea. Some people have criticized Christensen for applying his theory to various markets where it doesn't fit-- medicine, education, consumer products-- but this is the first wholesale rejection that I've read.
In my review of The Everything Store, I said that Barnes and Noble's failed entry into online retailing sounded like an illustration of Christensen's theories. But maybe the reasons for B&N's failure were more complex, and the book only portrays it as an inability to harness disruptive innovation because that's what the dominant theory predicts.
The article has made me question a lot of assumptions. It will be interesting to see what kind of responses it gets.