I am continuing with my sprint to write down the ideas and concepts that I am explaining regularly at different events and meetings (The earlier posts are all available on www.cunningham.org.za). The ideas about the fourth industrial revolution being disruptive are now discussed and repeated even by people who have very little understanding of technology or innovation, nevermind management (see post “what is the difference between 4IR and Industrie 4.0?”). There are subtle yet important differences between disruptive, radical and incremental innovation. These differences matter for policymakers, entrepreneurs and economic development practitioners.
In business management literature a distinction is often made between incremental, radical and disruptive innovation. Incremental innovation introduces relatively minor changes to an existing product, process or technology, while radical innovation is based on a different set of engineering, scientific and business principles and often opens up new markets and applications. While incremental improvements may be small, the cumulative effects of an ongoing series of incremental improvements could be huge.
Incremental innovation exploits the potential of an established design and often reinforces the dominance of established firms. It mainly originates from within the sub-sector or system, and the informed or connected firms are often aware of the changing trends. While it hardly requires new science, incremental innovation draws on incredible skills, deductive reasoning and experience, and over time can have significant cumulative economic consequences. Most businesspeople hardly recognise incremental improvement as innovation, although when prompted, many are able to identify several incremental improvements to their products, processes and organisational arrangements. Incremental innovations are chosen by the market if they offer savings, or add more value to what already exists. The market chooses an improved idea if it exceeds their existing expectations.
Radical innovations occur when new technologies are introduced into an existing market or technological domain. In the evolutionary technological change process, a radical innovation can start one of the change cycles (start a fluid phase), or it can be a blip in the performance of the technology during the amplification or selection phases.
Christensen (2000) argues that both incremental and radical innovations based on a specific technological paradigm often benefit incumbent firms, and describes them as sustainable innovations (for incumbent firms). Incumbents and markets can recognise the benefits of the radical innovation and quickly adapt to it, or integrate it into their operations.
Disruptive innovation is different in that it often favours the new entrants (called the attackers by Christensen), who often combine different product, process and marketing innovation with a different business model. This part of the business model is really important. Disruptive innovations are hardly about the product/service or the process, it is really about a different business model. These business model innovation often originate in niche markets where an innovator works very closely with niche market players to refine an idea in an iterative process before it is taken up by other markets. Incumbents have a really hard time to defend against this because they can copy some of the products, service or process features, but they often cannot copy the culture of the attacker.
Christensen et al. (2015) explains that disruptors often challenge incumbent firms with new business models, and attack incumbents by targeting marginal or even low-end markets. Firms with resources and adaptive management systems are often able to exit these markets or to shift into new (often higher-value) market segments. While incumbents may be able to adapt their products and processes, it is often a matter of time before newer business models of the attackers outperform their traditional arrangements.
There are examples of famous and powerful firms going under or losing market dominance because they were disrupted by a new technological paradigm introduced by actors from another sector. Recent research comparing the US Fortune 500 companies in 1955 and 2017 shows that only 60 firms were in both lists (Perry, 2017). It is already hard enough for firms to stay abreast of technological changes and innovations within their sector and in related industries, therefore many established firms are often blindsided by technologies developed in other sectors that may in future disrupt them.
Some remarks about these ideas:
For most companies, radical and incremental innovations occur on a frequent basis. It may require rethinking a product, making changes to a process, finding new material suppliers or changing prices. While a competitor launching a new product, or announcing a change in pricing may disrupt your plans or cause a lot of stress, this is not what is meant with disruption. Disruption means that you cannot proceed in the same way. The markets you have served in the past now have new criterial which they use to select between alternatives and you have a weaker offer.
Disruptive innovations are disruptive because they require a rethink or demand a change of the core business model. Clients don’t want a price cut or an added feature. Some countries (like Singapore) promote disruptive technologies into their economies because it leads to increased innovation and much higher awareness by incumbents of global technological changes. Other countries try to defend against disruptive technologies, but in a way, they may only be postponing the inevitable. What is clear to me is that companies cannot afford to only look for technological solutions within their industry or sector, but that they have to scan much broader. For an incumbent company to respond to a big disruption may require more business model innovation. For instance, our South African manufacturers have lost many competitive battles with manufacturers from Asia. Yet, very few manufacturers innovated in the business models by opening their own factories in Asia to learn from those markets.
Which brings me to a final remark. To get more companies hyper-sensitive to technological change, policymakers have to find ways to promote competition. It is only when small improvements make a big difference that incumbents would be willing to search beyond their current sectors for alternatives that offer even a small advantage.
This is the 4th post that draws from the research and advisory work I am currently busy with to strengthen South Africa’s technological capability to detect and better respond to discontinuous technological change. The citation information for this post is at the bottom of this post, and a link to the research report that I have copied this from is here.
 While this literature is increasingly popular since the publications of Clayton Christensen, it is not new. Schumpeter (1934) and Freeman and Soete (1997), among others, already wrote about this much earlier.
 Several trends, such as the increasingly important knowledge-intensive business service sector, or new ways of sharing and protecting knowledge, play an important role in providing firms with access to new or relevant information.
 Christensen, Raynor and McDonald (2015) argue that from a disruptive theory perspective Uber is not seen as disruptive, as many taxis have been using apps for a long time, and Uber did not really enter the market by starting in underserved markets. However, due to the violent protests by traditional taxi owners, Uber is often described as being disruptive.
 An ironic example of a company that failed to recognise one of its own innovations as disruptive is Kodak. Management was so set on its film-based business and technology model that it chose to ignore its own market research that showed the disruptive potential of digital technology that one of their engineers developed in 1975. Not only did digital technology disrupt Kodak, it created many completely new industries, markets and applications.
CHRISTENSEN, C.M. 2000. The innovator’s dilemma: when new technologies cause great firms to fail. 1st Ed. New York, NY: HarperBusiness.
CHRISTENSEN, C.M., RAYNOR, M.E. and MCDONALD, R. 2015. What Is Disruptive Innovation? Harvard Business Review, December 2015.
FREEMAN, C. and SOETE, L. 1997. The Economics of Industrial Innovation. 3rd. London: Pinter.
PERRY, M. 2017. Fortune 500 firms 1955-v-2017.: http://www.aei.org/
Citation for this text:
TIPS. 2018. Framing the concepts that underpin discontinuous technological change, technological capability and absorptive capacity. Eds, Levin, Saul and Cunningham, Shawn. 1/4, Pretoria: Trade and Industry Policy Strategy (TIPS) and behalf of the Department of Trade and Industry, South Africa. www.tips.org.za DOWNLOAD