Brilliant Clay Shirky post on why industries succumb to disruptive innovation

By November 16, 2012 6 Comments

Clay Shirky is one of my favourite business writers and last week he wrote a post about the coming disruption of the education industry. He begins by describing how Napster was a watershed moment for the music industry, making the interesting point that although they won the battle against Napster they went on to lose the war, failing to regain control over even legal channels of music distribution. I love his explanation of why:

The people in the music industry weren’t stupid, of course. They had access to the same internet the rest of us did. They just couldn’t imagine—and I mean this in the most ordinarily descriptive way possible—could not imagine that the old way of doing things might fail. Yet things did fail, in large part because, after Napster, the industry’s insistence that digital distribution be as expensive and inconvenient as a trip to the record store suddenly struck millions of people as a completely terrible idea.

and of how this sort of failing generalises to other industries:

Once you see this pattern—a new story rearranging people’s sense of the possible, with the incumbents the last to know—you see it everywhere. First, the people running the old system don’t notice the change. When they do, they assume it’s minor. Then that it’s a niche. Then a fad. And by the time they understand that the world has actually changed, they’ve squandered most of the time they had to adapt.

As Clay says, it’s been interesting watching this play out in music, books, newspapers and TV, and it’s now starting to happen in education. His assessment of the education industry’s likely response is good for a bit of Friday humour:

We [in education] have several advantages over the recording industry, of course. We are decentralized and mostly non-profit. We employ lots of smart people. We have previous examples to learn from, and our core competence is learning from the past. And armed with these advantages, we’re probably going to screw this up as badly as the music people did.

I’m going to finish with a quote that illustrates the power of the disruptive forces sweeping through education:

Last year, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, an online course from Stanford taught by Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun, attracted 160,000 potential students, of whom 23,000 completed it, a scale that dwarfs anything possible on a physical campus. As Thrun put it, “Peter and I taught more students AI, than all AI professors in the world combined.” Seeing this, he quit and founded Udacity, an educational institution designed to offer MOOCs.

That’s an amazing stat (or claim…). If you’re interested in the future of education, or in examples of weak arguments that establishment figures use to defend the status quo then Clay’s full post is well worth a read.