Disruption: A Tarnished Brand

I’ve been hearing for years that law needs to be “disrupted.” “Legal rebels” and “reinventors” of law may want to take a look at Jill Lepore’s devastating account of Clay Christensen’s development of that buzzword. Lepore surfaces the ideology behind it, and suggests some shoddy research:

Christensen’s sources are often dubious and his logic questionable. His single citation for his investigation of the “disruptive transition from mechanical to electronic motor controls,” in which he identifies the Allen-Bradley Company as triumphing over four rivals, is a book called “The Bradley Legacy,” an account published by a foundation established by the company’s founders. This is akin to calling an actor the greatest talent in a generation after interviewing his publicist.

Critiques of Christensen’s forays into health and education are common, but Lepore takes the battle to his home territory of manufacturing, debunking “success stories” trumpeted by Christensen. She also exposes the continuing health of firms the Christensenites deemed doomed. For Lepore, disruption is less a scientific theory of management than a thin ideological veneer for pushing short-sighted, immature, and venal business models onto startups:

They are told that they should be reckless and ruthless. Their investors . . . tell them that the world is a terrifying place, moving at a devastating pace. “Today I run a venture capital firm and back the next generation of innovators who are, as I was throughout my earlier career, dead-focused on eating your lunch,” [one] writes. His job appears to be to convince a generation of people who want to do good and do well to learn, instead, remorselessness. Forget rules, obligations, your conscience, loyalty, a sense of the commonweal. . . . Don’t look back. Never pause. Disrupt or be disrupted.

In other words, disruption is a slick rebranding of the B-School Machiavellianism that brought us “systemic deregulation and financialization.” If you’re wondering why many top business scholars went from “higher aims to hired hands,” Lepore’s essay is a great place to start.

I do feel a bit bad for Christensen—I wouldn’t want to face an audience of students this fall who’d read Lepore’s takedown. But it turns out that disrupters even have a solution for that:

Professor Christensen did something “truly disruptive” in 2011, when he found himself in a room with a panoramic view of Boston Harbor. About to begin his lecture, he noticed something about the students before him. They were beautiful, he later recalled. Really beautiful.

“Oh, we’re not students,” one of them explained. “We’re models.”

They were there to look as if they were learning: to appear slightly puzzled when Professor Christensen introduced a complex concept, to nod when he clarified it, or to look fascinated if he grew a tad boring. The cameras in the classroom — actually, a rented space downtown — would capture it all for the real audience: roughly 130,000 business students at the University of Phoenix, which hired Professor Christensen to deliver lectures online.

With a top manager collecting $574 million from U. Phoenix’s parent company, I guess it’s a disrupter par excellence.

You may also like...