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Disruptive technology: Dead companies do tell tales

Thornton May | Nov. 21, 2014
Companies nearly always have plenty of time to properly address disruptive technology. So why do so many fail to do so?

The thing that I was surprised to discover as I read these and other books was that disrupted companies were not blindsided. Disruptive technology doesn't sneak up on anybody; it's nearly always loudly heralded long before its victims fall prey to it. The media, including Computerworld, does a great job publicizing emerging technology.

Indeed, the technology future is forecastable. Most C-suite dwellers feel relatively confident that they know the general direction that technology is heading. Where organizations start getting confused is deciding what they are supposed to do about it. Kodak knew about digital photography; worse, it actually invented it. Steve Sasson, the Kodak engineer who created the first digital camera in 1975, infamously characterized the initial corporate response to his invention this way: "Management's reaction was, That's cute -- but don't tell anyone about it.'" So Kodak's leaders were aware, but in denial. When a disruptive technology appears on the horizon of your industry, you need to ask yourself, "How open-minded are this company's leaders?" and "What voices are the executive management team willing to listen to?"

Another question companies need to ask themselves is whether they have the right leadership to deal with an era of disruptive technologies. To go back to Kodak: in 1989, its board of directors had a chance to make a course change when Colby Chandler, the CEO, retired. The two final candidates for the job were Phil Samper, who had a sophisticated feel for digital technology, and Kay R. Whitmore, who represented the traditional film business in which he had been involved for three decades. It's hardly a surprise all these years later to hear that the board chose Whitmore.

Something else that you realize when you look at a lot of case studies of inappropriate responses is that disruptive technologies don't just happen. They evolve. There is a window of opportunity to do something before the technology becomes truly disruptive. The digital photography window that Kodak failed to act within lasted more than a decade. How long is your window?


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