Father of disruptive innovation Clayton Christensen died last Thursday, 23 January at the age of 67.

Tributes poured in from the world’s most prominent business leaders after the Harvard professor and businessman passed away from complications with his treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Clayton Christensen

His book The Innovative University took his theory of disruptive innovation to the field of higher education, where he and co-author Henry J. Eyring exploded the traditional university model, highlighting online learning as a disruptive technology that will force campus-based colleges to reinvent themselves.

Clayton Christensen and his ideas were fundamental to the philosophies behind Nexford University, and next-generation, 100% online university.

Nexford.edu screenshot
Nexford University website

In a New York Times article in 2013, he compared traditional universities to sailing ships at the beginning of the 19th century. When the first steam ships appeared, they didn’t pose much of a threat: They were expensive and couldn’t make it across the Atlantic. So steam ships found a foothold sailing up and down rivers, until the first steam ship sailed from the US to the UK and kicked the sail boat companies into action, who started to make hybrid ships that used steam and sails. But, technology moved fast and soon there was no comparison between sail and steam travel. Every sailing ship company sank.

“Traditional colleges are currently on their hybrid voyage across the ocean,” said Christensen. “Like steam, online education is a disruptive innovation – one that introduces more convenient and affordable products or services that over time, transform sectors. Yet many bricks-and-mortar colleges are making the same mistake as the once-dominant tall ships: they offer online courses but are not changing the existing model. They are not saving students time and money, the essential steps to disruption. And though their approach makes sense in the short term, it leaves them vulnerable as students gravitate toward less expensive colleges.”

Today, many traditional universities have adopted online learning, but they aren’t the ones doing the innovating. Christensen’s theory predicts that people will eventually move to new, disruptive innovations. Already universities are showing the cracks of a broken business model, raising prices and losing customers.

Other traditional universities are frantically launching MOOCs (massive open online courses) in an effort to move with the times, but they’re not disrupting anything yet. Only a few have built MOOCs into their curriculum, and because they’re not offering a solution for people who need low-cost, accessible and relevant degrees, they’re not truly innovating.

Christensen said that the lessons – from many industries – tell us that companies who truly innovate and transform their fundamental model instead of just hooking on parts of a new technology, will have the final say.

“As online learning evolves”, he said, “students should be able to customize their experience with what they need and can afford.”

“As concepts and skills are taught far more effectively online, it’s unlikely that face-to-face interaction will cease to matter. Instead, students can arrange for such experiences when it suits the job they need to get done. Given the reality that we all have different learning needs at different times, that’s a far more student-centred experience.”

In a tribute to Christensen, Cornelis Coetzee, Nexford’s Associate Professor, said: “The biggest influence most probably came from his article ‘How will you measure your life?’ in the framework of not HOW to think, but WHAT to think. In this article, Christensen extended his examination of the disruption concept to the personal realm by using his previously developed business concepts to challenge people to take control of their lives.” This was so they could lead great careers and incorporate such great careers into their personal lives.

Prior to reading this article,” noted Coetzee, “I viewed Christensen’s work mostly as more business, marketing theory, much in the same way I viewed Vargo and Lusch’s ‘Services-dominant logic’ – something to explore but still to be encapsulated. The how-to-what-to think penny dropped – and through that, the disruption concept suddenly shaped perfectly in my mind. This also had a profound effect on my approach to my post-graduate studies and academia in total – which often led to vehement opposition from ‘established incumbents’.”

By remaining focussed on “product innovation” (Marketing Malpractice: The Cause and the Cure), said Coetzee, Christensen thereby changed his thinking approach from what to how, allowing himself to be disrupted – “against all odds and to great success thus far”.

Rest well you giant – may your legacy long be practiced!”