on ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’

Even though I believe the concepts of ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’ refer to sociologically significant phenomena, I cringe slightly whenever I hear someone use the terms. Particularly in the case of the latter, a whole theory of social change at the meso level is implicit within it: it’s deeply ideological and we need to unpack it, rather than reinforce it by invoking the concept of ‘disruption’.

Part of the problem here is analytically distinguishing between the trends these concepts invoke and the discursive resources they provide for managers to give an account of their organisation. On this note, the following infographic was interesting to come across, even if the appropriate resolution leaves it so small as to be difficult to read:


A search of annual and quarterly reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission shows companies mentioned some form of the word “innovation” 33,528 times last year, which was a 64% increase from five years before that.

More than 250 books with “innovation” in the title have been published in the last three months, most of them dealing with business, according to a search of Amazon.com.


As a descriptive term, used to refer to what Eric Schmidt defines as items that are both surprising and offer new functionality (How Google Works loc 2909), I have no problem with the notion of ‘innovation’. The difficulty comes in how it’s drawn upon as a matter of reflex to aggrandise things that are lacking on one count and/or the other. Interestingly, this isn’t something confined to technology firms:

Technology concerns aren’t necessarily the worst offenders. AppleInc. and Google Inc. mentioned innovation 22 times and 14 times, respectively, in their most recent annual reports. But they were matched by Procter & Gamble Co. (22 times), Scotts Miracle-Gro Co.(21 times) and Campbell Soup Co. (18 times).


And inevitably, where there is bullshit, there is an army of consultants whose fortunes are tied to upholding the percieved intellectual legitimacy of this bullshit in order that they can continue to peddle it:

The innovation trend has given birth to an attendant consulting industry, and Fortune 100 companies pay innovation consultants $300,000 to $1 million for work on a single project, which can amount to $1 million to $10 million a year, estimates Booz & Co. innovation strategy consultant Alex Kandybin.

In addition, four in 10 executives say their company now has a chief innovation officer, according to a recent study of the phenomenon released last month by Capgemini Consulting.


But as the WSJ article goes on to note, of the 4 in 10 global corporations which now have a chief innovation officer, “an online survey of 260 global executives and 25 in-depth interviews, suggest that such titles may be mainly ‘for appearances.’” The slippage between the two uses of the term has material consequences: invoking ‘innovation’ to account for what we are already doing in more positive terms leads to an apparatus of innovation emerging within the organisation. In other words, ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ talk aren’t just window dressing, in the sense that the entrenchment of this discourse has intra-organisational implications. Note: I’m not saying these changes have any capacity to produce disruption or innovation in the descriptive sense, only that these are real changes rather than mere talk.