Disruptive—it’s the new buzzword for success and innovation in the business world. Being called a “disruptor” is a badge of honor, but what does it really mean? And how does it play out in the arena of education and workforce development?
One of my favorite authors and speakers Tony Robbins has a great article on disruption—what it is, where it started, and whether or not it’s something to pursue. True disruption, according to the originator of the term, is not simply a company coming in and shaking up the market in a big way (like Uber, for example). It’s more specific than that:
“Disruption” describes a process whereby a smaller company with fewer resources is able to successfully challenge established incumbent businesses. Specifically, as incumbents focus on improving their products and services for their most demanding (and usually most profitable) customers, they exceed the needs of some segments and ignore the needs of others. Entrants that prove disruptive begin by successfully targeting those overlooked segments, gaining a foothold by delivering more-suitable functionality—frequently at a lower price. Incumbents, chasing higher profitability in more-demanding segments, tend not to respond vigorously. Entrants then move upmarket, delivering the performance that incumbents’ mainstream customers require, while preserving the advantages that drove their early success. When mainstream customers start adopting the entrants’ offerings in volume, disruption has occurred.
In some ways career-focused education and workforce development providers are already taking the disruptive path and changing the status quo. Think about it: they frequently have “fewer resources” than the established four-year colleges and universities, which can be seen as the incumbents in the postsecondary educational market. Alternative postsecondary learning institutions also serve an oft-overlooked customer segment—individuals who choose to bypass the traditional university route.
With the high and constantly rising cost of college education, you could argue that the incumbents are indeed chasing higher profitability, while the disruptive, smaller, alternative postsecondary organizations are targeting their segment with the “more-suitable functionality” and “lower price” of in-demand technical skill offerings.
So there you have it—you may be disruptive without even knowing it! Simply by doing what you do with excellence and passion, you could be on the cutting edge of innovation and market change. However, I tend to agree with Robbins’ conclusion that in most fields, the best disruption is “disrupting your business as usual.” If we want different results, we have to disrupt our old habits and ways of thinking so we can change our approach. Different actions lead to different outcomes. Innovating new ways to serve students and trainees, investing in the strategies and tools that can reach target audiences most effectively, and striving for everyday excellence are the hallmarks of an organization that is making a positive difference—whether “disruption” is officially on its radar or not.
As a last thought, I don’t want to set up a hard dichotomy between traditional universities and other postsecondary learning institutions. After all, we’re all in the same boat trying to prepare students and trainees for meaningful, rewarding, and productive lives. Education is a priceless asset, no matter how or where it is imparted, and the more choices that young people have, the more chance that they will succeed in whatever pathway they choose. Everything we do must center on the students and trainees who are getting ready to change the world. And if we can give them a stronger future by disrupting the status quo, let’s do it!