‘Hybrid innovation': Clayton Christensen Institute introduces new disruption concept

There’s a new term in the innovation lexicon.

Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor credited with coining the term “disruptive innovation,” authored a white paper with colleagues Heather Staker and Michael Horn titled “Is K–12 blended learning disruptive? An introduction of the theory of hybrids.” In it, the authors introduce “hybrid innovation”, which is described in a release as “a fundamentally new concept [in] the world of disruptive innovation.” The paper was announced by the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation (formerly the Innosight Institute) on Thursday.

The disruption landscape is no stranger to new concepts. In a piece for Harvard Business Review in April, Paul Nunes of the Accenture Institute for High Performance and Larry Downes, a fellow at the institute, introduced “big bang disruption,” or the game-changing innovations that change industries overnight.

This Photo taken Feb. 14, 2013 shows a hybrid logo on the back of a Ford Fusion hybrid automobile at the 2013 Pittsburgh Auto Show in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
This Photo taken Feb. 14, 2013, shows a hybrid logo on the back of a Ford Fusion hybrid automobile at the 2013 Pittsburgh Auto Show in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

In an executive summary, the team defines a hybrid as “a combination of the new, disruptive technology with the old technology” that “represents a sustaining innovation relative to the old technology.” The authors go on to write in the full paper that:

“Whenever a disruptive technology emerges, the leading firms in the field usually do not completely ignore it as they march forward with better products with higher profits for their best customers. Instead, they try to adopt the disruptive technology, but they do so through a sustaining strategy—they create a hybrid. The hybrid solution marries the old technology with the new in an attempt to create a “best of both worlds” alternative that the incumbent firms can market as a better product to their existing customers.

Okay, and that means what exactly?

Well, think of hybrid cars. They use gasoline (old) and electricity (new…well, sort of), they aren’t significantly easier to use or necessarily cheaper than their gas-only counterparts and go after pretty much the same pool of customers. More recently, think of the disruption of the photography industry. A landscape of photo paper and printing stations, turned into one of digital cameras and desktop software. Then came the disruption: smartphones with Hipstamatic, and not long after Instagram. Then there’s banking, which incorporates mobile banking alongside the brick-and-mortar banks. Mobile wallets, the authors note, stand to fundamentally disrupt the need for traditional banking services.

The team identifies four ways of identifying hybrid innovations. These types of innovations are “less ‘foolproof'” than disruptive innovations, meaning they fail to be significantly less expensive or easier to use than the older models. Hybrid innovations offer old tech and new tech simultaneously. They try to do the same job as the old tech. And hybrids try to appeal to customers already consuming the old tech.

The authors use K-12 education as a sort of canvas, showing how different education models use new technologies along with brick-and-mortar classrooms, resulting in hybrid innovation. In a piece for Forbes, Horn writes:

“Almost every student has access to a government-funded school of some sort. As a result, we can predict that most students will, in the future, still attend schools, but they will be hybrids—blended learning schools that combine brick-and-mortar buildings with online learning.”

Ultimately, continues Horn, schools will transition into community centers as academics are moved to the Web. This will make the development and maintenance of quality facilities an even greater priority.

And, with that, I think we’ve used our “innovation” word quota for the day.

Let us know your thoughts on hybrid innovation and its potential ramifications in the comments section.

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Emi Kolawole · May 23, 2013