Disruption and the Value of Small Things

The Emperor of Disruption has no clothes, and Jill Lepore has said so, out loud. Will anyone notice?

June 18, 2014
Disruption. Creative Destruction. Innovation. Entrepreneurship – terms we’ve heard constantly in recent years, with certain irrelevance and the total collapse of the world as we know it as the inescapable alternative. We’re supposed to think like a startup, though given the failure rate of startups, I’m not sure why – maybe that’s the destructive part of this version of creativity. The message always seems to be “you can’t do things the same way anymore, and if you don’t change really fast to anticipate the future, you’re doomed,” regardless of what the change is or whether it’s positive or simply a malign force, like an asteroid hurtling toward Earth, that cannot be avoided. 
Jill Lepore traces the history of this notion of “disruption” and takes it apart very intelligently at The New Yorker. She faults Clayton Christensen, the Disruption King, for the way he lays out his argument in his popular book, The Innovator’s Dilemma
The strength of a prediction made from a model depends on the quality of the historical evidence and on the reliability of the methods used to gather and interpret it. Historical analysis proceeds from certain conditions regarding proof. None of these conditions have been met.
Later, after taking apart the case studies upon which Christensen’s theory is built and putting it all in a historical context (which the theory had avoided doing), she points out that a theory of business success shouldn’t be applied to everything. 
Faith in disruption is the best illustration, and the worst case, of a larger historical transformation having to do with secularization, and what happens when the invisible hand replaces the hand of God as explanation and justification. Innovation and disruption are ideas that originated in the arena of business but which have since been applied to arenas whose values and goals are remote from the values and goals of business. People aren’t disk drives. Public schools, colleges and universities, churches, museums, and many hospitals, all of which have been subjected to disruptive innovation, have revenues and expenses and infrastructures, but they aren’t industries in the same way that manufacturers of hard-disk drives or truck engines or drygoods are industries. 
Curiously, this is where a Slate writer faults for overreach, suggesting she's just sore that her own field, journalism, is being disrupted. But following that paragraph, she points specifically to  The New York Times' Innovation Report, focusing on the separation between the news side and the business side of any news operation. She questions the recklessness of making it more permeable, as the report recommends, because it will threaten the very reason the paper is in business: great reporting. Without that, there will be no product to sell, no brand to promote. It's a very good example (and one I've mulled over myself) of what's dangerously deluded about this highly-influential theory that has no clothes. 
Two years ago, I did a little and totally unscientific experiment. My association, ACRL, puts out a list of trends every couple of years, a list of what appears to be emerging as hot topics in academic libraries. It’s not as futuristic or evidence-free as the hyped Horizon Reports, but is more of a finger on the pulse of the profession. The trouble is that it seems to be taking the pulse of large libraries with large staffs, so for those of us in smaller libraries (which make up a large percentage of all academic libraries), these trends feel like the movement of the planets, or perhaps the movement of the planets with some asteroids hurtling toward us. 
That said, I know librarians at these smaller, less-well-funded institutions are always trying new things, experimenting, sharing ideas – I would say “innovating” if I didn’t find that word awkward and vaguely distasteful. So I put out a little survey and found that indeed, the things little libraries do are often small-scale and not the shiny new things getting all the buzz. They’re often things other libraries already did. But they are non-remarkable things that make a difference, a big difference to the people inhabiting those small institutions. And they are being done often in a hostile environment, one in which money is short, staff have been cut, and there’s either little support for trying new things or there’s constant organizational restructuring that makes it hard to get anything done.   
What’s troubling is that these small changes that make a big difference don’t seem to matter because people don’t matter except "at scale" (another phrase I'm beginning to hate). They totally miss the smaller, human-scale changes that matter. The student who struggled with organic chem suddenly connects because the department decided to throw out their lab sequence and try something different, more risky, but potentially better at giving students a genuine feel for science. It took months of planning and has made everyone involved in the course work like demons to iron out the glitches, but for this student, it has made all the difference. She suddenly gets what it feels like to be a scientist. She can see herself as a scientist for the first time. 
The historian who’s given her syllabus a good shake and is trying out a new way to engage students with history has spent the summer delving into the holdings of the county historical society (which is understaffed and trying to raise funds to fix the leaking roof), then working on a completely new set of assignment prompts, learning how to use new tools so that her students can create digital exhibits. She’s had to drum up funding for software and has discovered two days before classes start that the instructor workstation isn’t set up like the rest of the computers in the lab, and the projection system was upgraded over the summer and nothing is working right. But she puts out all the fires and meets with her students who have a million anxious questions about these new assignments and she wonders if she’s making a big mistake until she sees her students present their projects months later. It was a daunting amount of work, but they’re getting it, really getting it, and it suddenly seems worth it. 
The librarians who threw themselves into a mixed-methods ethnographic research project, which seemed at times to be more a form of mixed martial arts, are working through the implications. They now have insights into how their website should be redesigned, how new group study spaces can be created if they withdraw runs of bound periodicals that duplicate what’s in JSTOR, and if they can rescue some spare furniture from the college’s storage rooms, because there is no budget for new furnishings, though they might be able to manage a couple of whiteboards on wheels. So the serials manager runs a report to see what can be withdrawn and works with student employees to shift the collection and members of the space committee visit the storeroom to find some tables and the web committee bones up on responsive design and pools their self-taught knowledge of CSS . . . and it’s all a lot of work for a dozen people, who are simultaneously running a library, but when it’s all done the library is a better place. They know, because that assessment plan they had to put together is coming in handy. 
None of this work registers as valuable because it isn’t disruptive, it isn’t shiny, it isn’t new enough. It isn't a radical answer to all of the threats that are poised to render their institution extinct any day now. In fact, the administrators at this institution, busy with financials and accreditation and regulations and fund-raising, may not even know it's happening. If told, a hotshot VP for something is likely to dismiss it as rearranging deckchairs. All it accomplishes is making the conditions for learning better for the students in those courses, using that library, at that one institution, now and those enrolled in semester to come until further changes are needed. But for those students, it matters, and all of that work is what we do, all the time. It’s our job. 
A critical assumption of the innovator's storyline is that anything that isn't disruptive is stasis, complacency, lack of direction, a commitment to doing the same deluded thing year after year. While the things we do may be small, that presumption of complacency and inertia isn't. As lies go, it's pretty big.  


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