Could it be that your com­pa­ny is going out of busi­ness and nobody knows it? I ask that sim­ply because there are many peo­ple now talk­ing about “dis­rup­tive tech­nolo­gies”. What are those? Think of it as a trend that will nev­er go away. McK­in­sey pub­lished a 2013 research report that it sum­maris­es in this way:

Dis­rup­tive tech­nolo­gies: Advances that will trans­form life, busi­ness, and the glob­al econ­o­my, a report from the McK­in­sey Glob­al Insti­tute, cuts through the noise and iden­ti­fies 12 tech­nolo­gies that could dri­ve tru­ly mas­sive eco­nom­ic trans­for­ma­tions and dis­rup­tions in the com­ing years. The report also looks at exact­ly how these tech­nolo­gies could change our world, as well as their ben­e­fits and chal­lenges, and offers guide­lines to help lead­ers from busi­ness­es and oth­er insti­tu­tions respond.

The authors of the report [link] — James Manyi­ka, Michael Chui, Jacques Bugh­in, Richard Dobbs, Peter Bis­son and Alex Marrs — list trends in fields such as advanced robot­ics and next-gen­er­a­tion genomics. You can see a quick sum­ma­ry of their work on Busi­ness Insid­er [link]. But it’s not the trends, alone, that are fas­ci­nat­ing. It’s the poten­tial impact on com­pa­nies that thrive on exist­ing tech­nolo­gies that real­ly rais­es (or should raise) your con­cern. Say the authors:

We esti­mate that, togeth­er, appli­ca­tions of the 12 tech­nolo­gies dis­cussed in the report could have a poten­tial eco­nom­ic impact between $14 tril­lion and $33 tril­lion a year in 2025. This esti­mate is nei­ther pre­dic­tive nor com­pre­hen­sive. It is based on an in-depth analy­sis of key poten­tial appli­ca­tions and the val­ue they could cre­ate in a num­ber of ways, includ­ing the con­sumer sur­plus that aris­es from bet­ter prod­ucts, low­er prices, a clean­er envi­ron­ment, and bet­ter health.

Disrupt SignIn oth­er words, many new tech­nolo­gies (and those firms that devel­op them) will start gen­er­at­ing tril­lions in rev­enue, most like­ly dec­i­mat­ing the income streams of those com­pa­nies stuck in the past.

For the last few years, MIT has been track­ing the 50 com­pa­nies most like­ly to lead dis­rup­tions in the mar­ket­place. Their 2013 list [link] reveals some famil­iar names (Apple, Face­book, Siemens, Toy­ota) and many you might not have heard from — yet. For exam­ple, MIT lists Aquion Ener­gy, Cours­era, MC10 and uniQure. Say who?

I also found it inter­est­ing that some far-sight­ed indi­vid­u­als are think­ing about dis­rup­tion. For exam­ple, have you seen Michael Phillip’s blog on “Five Cor­po­ra­tion-Crush­ing Dis­rup­tive Tech­nolo­gies That Will Empow­er the Mass­es”? [link] As is true of so many blogs, you will find a strong point of view here and some strong opin­ions. He sees dis­rup­tive tech­nolo­gies down­grad­ing the role of cor­po­ra­tions in peo­ple’s lives:

This next wave of dis­rup­tive tech will decen­tral­ize pow­er, putting it back into the hands of the peo­ple. It will ush­er in a time where we will make our own belong­ings, fund our own ven­tures and mas­ter our own bod­ies and con­scious­ness­es. What makes this all the sweet­er is that huge cor­po­ra­tions and gov­ern­ments are either igno­rant to it, or pow­er­less to stop the rad­i­cal change that’s com­ing.

When he cites graphene as one of those tech­nolo­gies, it’s easy to start think­ing about where this sin­gle sci­en­tif­ic advance will lead all of us. Quite pos­si­bly, we will all be far more empow­ered than we are now.

I stand by what I said in my post on “Imag­ine! (Or Else!)” [link]. Indeed, your com­pa­ny may be a dis­rup­tive leader and your work and career are thus, rel­a­tive­ly, safe. But what if your com­pa­ny will find itself, soon­er rather than lat­er, crushed? I find the prospect, for many com­pa­nies, prob­a­ble and not just pos­si­ble. But this does not have to be tak­en as a threat, for in all this lie great oppor­tu­ni­ties for those will­ing to lead. As I write in my ear­li­er post:

There’s an impor­tant nextsens­ing les­son in all these inven­tions: no mat­ter your cur­rent mar­ket­place posi­tion or advan­tage, and no mat­ter how good you (think you) are, some­one — some­where (and not any­more just in a Sil­i­con Val­ley garage) — is prob­a­bly work­ing on an idea that will fun­da­men­tal­ly dis­rupt your world. It is not sim­ply about some­one inside your firm invent­ing an odd niche prod­uct or ser­vice occa­sion­al­ly. Rather, it’s about the need for a healthy degree of rest­less­ness that must be estab­lished and main­tained by lead­ers in every organ­i­sa­tion because there will be a new way of doing things soon­er rather than lat­er, and it would be nice if your firm had a hand in a few of the big­ger and strate­gi­cal­ly impor­tant new things.

In dis­rup­tive times, alert­ness to new prob­lems and new pos­si­bil­i­ties is today’s equiv­a­lent to “neces­si­ty is the moth­er of inven­tion”. It all starts with alert­ness to people’s wants and needs. Great oppor­tu­ni­ties flow from there.

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