Friday, June 20, 2014

Clayton Christensen is Mad

In a brief interview in Business Week, Christensen starts out polite about Jill Lepore (see The Bogosity of Disruption Theory) but gets significantly less so. At first, he says, he thought she was trying to protect his trademark, and he was shocked to discover she had something else in mind.
I was delighted that somebody with her standing would join me in trying to bring discipline and understanding around a very useful theory. I’ve been trying to do it for 20 years. And then in a stunning reversal, she starts instead to try to discredit Clay Christensen, in a really mean way. … I hope you can understand why I am mad that a woman of her stature could perform such a criminal act of dishonesty ….
If, like me, you twinged when you read that---wondering whether he would have been less mad to have been taken down by a man---the answer seems to be yes.
 Fifty-two years, Jill. Just so you understand, disruption doesn’t happen overnight.…  So—Jill, tell me, what’s the truth? …  Do they make rod and angle iron, Jill? No. Do they make structural steel I-beams and H-beams that you use to make the massive skyscrapers downtown, does U.S. Steel make those beams? Come on, Jill, tell me! No! …
 [Interviewer] You keep referring to Lepore by her first name. Do you know her?
I’ve never met her in my life.
Then why do you keep calling her by her first name, when the interviewer never used it?

The reliably conservative American Enterprise Institute dismisses the Lepore article as a leftist plot to  preserve the higher education dinosaur, titling its takedown of Lepore "Why business guru Clayton Christensen has landed on the left's hit list," and complaining that she "picks at the the corporate case studies that Christensen uses." Which is, of course, exactly right, except for the belittling verb --- that is what scholars do to each other, point out when their data do not support their conclusions. And then the AEI writer says that all she is trying to do is protect her own cushy job.
Count Lepore as one of many college professors who doesn’t like the idea of online learning disrupting how brick-and-mortar universities operate — and how profs do their jobs.
Which makes about as much sense as saying that the people who objected to Lysenkoism in Soviet Russia were just trying to preserve an archaic style of farming.

Paul Krugman takes Lepore's side, which I suppose just confirms the theory that this is a lefty plot. The AEI piece makes one interesting observation about the teaching mission of HBS, which I have no way to judge.
There is a big ongoing debate – Christensen on side, Michael Porter on the other — about how Harvard’s business school should deal with online education. Lepore’s piece can been seen as a mission in the campaign against Christensen approach.
Seen by people other than Lepore, I imagine. But there may equally be something else at stake---what counts as research and scholarship at places like HBS. Christensen seems to insist that he is doing something like science, and his theory has become more nuanced and gained more explanatory force. As he says about the iPhone in a Harvard Magazine profile grandly titled Disruptive Genius, "First I was wrong, and then I was right." But of course the real test of a scientific theory is its predictive success, not its pliability to fit facts. Or the amount of money people will pay you to spout it.


  1. Clay has the stablished market for his product. Jill is the disruptive innovator. The proof of his theory is if she drives him out of business.

    It may be that Clay just got the iPhone wrong. I'm reading the Steve Jobs bio and Steve seems to regard it as the evolution of the iPod. I owned 3 not so very long ago, gave one away and don't use the other 2. The iPhone doesn't play music as well, but it's got the phone, the internet, and the camera. I also don't use my wonderful Canon digital camera much anymore, or wear a watch.

    1. Well, I am only quoting Christensen himself about his being wrong on the iPhone. But the question is not about whether he is right or wrong on any particular case, just as it is not about whether dramatic (to avoid the brand name) changes happen in various industries, including higher education. As Lepore says, "Every age has a theory of rising and falling, of growth and decay, of bloom and wilt: a theory of nature. Every age also has a theory about the past and the present, of what was and what is, a notion of time: a theory of history. … Most big ideas have loud critics. Not disruption. Disruptive innovation as the explanation for how change happens has been subject to little serious criticism, partly because it’s headlong, while critical inquiry is unhurried; partly because disrupters ridicule doubters by charging them with fogyism, as if to criticize a theory of change were identical to decrying change; and partly because, in its modern usage, innovation is the idea of progress jammed into a criticism-proof jack-in-the-box." The question is whether he has a real theory here, one that deserves to be used as the justification for "shaking up" all kinds of things. It's one thing to say "I have a theory of how things change"; and it's another to say "and therefore you should lose your job." The theory could be ignored if executives everywhere were not taking it so seriously.