SPARK - Issue 21, February 2018
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Disruptive Innovation & Entrepreneurs

Dwayne Pattison

Disruptive innovation and entrepreneurs are good friends. Entrepreneurs are often the ones that develop new products or services that change an entire industry. But before we get into the reasons why that is, it’s important to ensure we’re all talking about the same thing.

“Disruptive” has become much like the word “innovation”—both are used so often and to describe so many different ideas that the real meaning often gets lost in translation. Today, these words can mean pretty much anything.

For a common reference, we turn to Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen who defines disruptive innovation as, “a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.”
Disruptive innovations are:
  • Affordable to a large group of consumers
  • Simple to use
  • Improved upon and continue to take a larger share of the market
Incumbents in the market don’t tend to focus here, instead choosing to concentrate on producing higher-priced products and enhancing the value for current customers.

This open space should be good news for entrepreneurs, who can start small in a niche market, and then build the product to appeal to wider and wider groups of people. Startups don’t necessarily need to be intimidated by bigger players either, as established companies are probably not interested in developing these low-margin products.

But a word of warning. As Martin Zwilling points out in his article Startups Should be Wary of Disruptive Technologies, just because an entrepreneur has a potentially disruptive innovation, doesn’t mean instant success (or success at all). It can take a long time (possibly a decade or more) for a product to reach a large audience. Zwilling notes that it took six years for the smartphone to reach a 50 percent adoption rate in the US.

Where might a disruption happen down the road? One possible scenario is in the electric vehicle (EV) industry. It’s argued that electric vehicles are not disruptive, because, compared to cars today, EVs are not cheaper or simpler to use; nor do they reach new consumers. And more significantly, all the major car companies are developing their own EVs. However, EVs themselves could be disrupted someday by “souped-up golf carts” that appeal to consumers looking for a cheap alternative for local transportation—a trip to the grocery store or a joy ride with entrepreneurial friends, perhaps.

Certainly, the definition leaves open the possibility that any industry can be disrupted, including education. Several years back, Christensen himself predicted that higher education could see its own disruption. Where from? Online institutes that are creating cheap (sometimes free) courses that are simple to use, and can potentially reach a large group of students, from all over the world.  Universities may not be threatened by this approach initially, since the quality of the online classes can be perceived as subpar. However, we can expect that gradual improvements to the overall experience will take place. Whether these changes will lead to a disruption, only time will tell.

To reiterate, a technology may have a significant impact on an industry, but if we are true to Dr. Christensen’s definition, few products are disruptive since they don’t create new industries. When pitching an innovative product, “valuable” or “groundbreaking” might be more appropriate adjectives. Then wait to see if it is disruptive.

Dwayne Pattison is a business intelligence analyst with the Saskatchewan Research Council. He regularly monitors technological developments taking place in the mining, biotech, and oil and gas industries. To learn more about the Saskatchewan Research Council, visit their website at:

Further References to Explore

Startups Should Be Ware of Disruptive Technologies - A caution by Forbes on over enthusiasm towards "disruptive" technologies.

The Explainer: Disruptive Innovation - A video produced by the Harvard Business Review explains the concept of "disruptive" innovation. 

Research and Insights


Encouraging Students Toward Computer Science Learning (Google, 2017) — Google reports on “differences in interest and confidence” among underrepresented groups such as girls, and Black and Hispanic students, in regards to computer science education. The report, based on 2015-2016 surveys, finds that lower student self-perceptions of their skill in math and science may contribute to a CS interest gap, starting as early as age 14. It also finds that students that have been told they would be good at CS are 2.5-3 times “more likely to be interested in learning CS in the future.”  Read more.

The State of French Language Education in Canada (Canadian Parents for French 2017)  This report reviews trends in the education literature surrounding French as a Second Language. The report reviews 42 peer-reviewed, student-focused articles that relate to two main themes: French language form and French language literacy. Its findings show that “students benefit from an explicit teaching of form and peer-collaboration” and that, “French language ability can be predicted on the basis of select English language measures, which can help to facilitate “early detection and possible intervention.” Read more.

Guidance Counsellors: Expanding Roles, Limited Access (People for Education, 2017)  This report draws attention to the multiple roles guidance counsellors are called on to play in elementary and secondary schools. The report, based on an annual survey of schools, reports that 20% of elementary and 26% of secondary schools report that providing on-on-one mental health counselling to students is their most time consuming activity. Among other recommendations, the report recommends that the funding formula be changed so that “per-pupil funding for guidance counsellors is for students in grades 7 and 8 at the same rate as it is for secondary school students.” Read more.

Raise the Bar: A Coherent and Responsive Education Administrative System for Nova Scotia (Avis Glaze, 2018) Avis Glaze’s controversial report to Nova Scotia’s Ministry of Education recommended the elimination of school boards and the creation of a single provincial advisory council. The recommendation is being implemented by the Ministry of Education. The report was based on consultations that were held between Tuesday, October 17th and Friday, November 10th and included meetings with the Nova Scotia Schools Boards Association, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Education, the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, and other important groups. Ms. Glaze also met with parent and community representatives, as well as students. Finally, the report included information from an online survey with approximately 1,500 responses.  Read more.

  • The Saskatchewan Research Council's panel of experts reflects on the "Things We Wish We Knew About Careers And Work When We Were in Grade 9".
  • A report from Microsoft on Preparing the Class of 2030 says that developed social and emotional skills are twice as predictive of student academic achievement as home environment and demographics.
  • The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s Global Privacy Enforcement Network Sweep 2017 highlights good and bad privacy practices of more than two dozen popular online educational tools for K-12 classrooms.
  • PISA will now be testing students for global competency, understood as the ability to examine and appreciate different local, global and intercultural perspectives and take action for sustainability and collective well-being.  

Spotlight on Business and Education

Towards An Inclusive, Innovative Canada (Canada 2020, 2017)  As part of the Innovation Project launched by Canada 2020, this report proposed Canada’s innovation goals and discussed the criteria and resources that can be employed to measure innovation. The report further presented the survey results of the innovation landscape of Canada by major industry, based on what the authors proposed as ten detailed ideas to drive innovation in Canada and how they should be executed. Read more.

Drawing the Future (Education and Employers, 2018) — This report presented the findings from an international survey conducted by UK charity Education and Employers, that asked students aged 7 to 11 to draw their future jobs. The survey results suggest that children from an early age often have sophisticated and thorough ideas about who they want to become when they grow up. The findings also show that from a young age children often stereotype jobs according to gender and their career choices are based on these assumptions. Read more.

Tech Trends 2018: The Symphonic Enterprise (Deloitte, 2018) — The ninth edition of Tech Trends by Deloitte gathered eight articles explaining recent trends in technology that are remaking our world. The trends such as digitization, cloud computing, and analytics, are now embraced across industries. More recent trends, such as autonomous platforms, machine intelligence, and digital reality continue to gain momentum. Although domain-specific approaches are valuable, this report emphasized the importance of having strategy, technology, and operations work in harmony across domains and boundaries to build a symphonic enterprise. Read more.

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