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Disruptive Technology: Selected Sources, Musings, and a Bit of Speculation
Volume 41, Number 1 - January/February 2017

In today’s world, disruptive technology is all around us. Almost every day, reports about disruptive technology become available, such as the one that came across my desk while I was writing this article: “Residential Energy Storage Systems: Utility Technology Disruption Report.”

As information professionals, we constantly need knowledge about the latest technology to keep up-to-date in our field. In fact, much of the technology we experience today is disruptive and based on the next great technological innovation. Disruptive technology is of particular interest to information professionals because it constantly changes our industry and profession. Further, it is important to know about the resources available for learning about disruptive technology to assist our users and clients with their research into the industries and markets in which they operate or are responsible for developing. Ron Dolin is a senior research fellow at Harvard Law’s Center on the Legal Profession who works on legal quality metrics. He is also an adjunct assistant professor at Notre Dame Law School, where he teaches a course on legal technology and informatics ( He asserts:

[L]aw librarians are key players in pushing for ward innovation in both law schools and law firms. They are tasked with training law students and young lawyers and procuring new and innovative technologies. In an information age, this cohort of professionals has a unique and critical value in the legal ecosystem. The future competitive advantage of law schools and law firms increasingly lies with law librarians and their potential as the modern information scientist.

Law Librarians: The Hidden Bastions of Data-Driven Innovation , March 20, 2016;

Adding to Dolin’s contention, a blog commenter proposes:

This radical view of the future of law practice and the value added role law librarians can play is prescient. Libraries will be less about physical archives and serve more as the locus of strategic data driven decision making for practitioners who need not only to understand the law to win clients, but to help clients understand their chances of success and reasonable estimates of cost for embarking on alternative courses of action. Information science threatens to destroy any service provider that fails to understand the urgency of incorporating new models and technologies that help clients evaluate and appreciate the ROI of their expenditures.

In addition, for each of us personally as consumers, we’re exposed to and constantly adopting new technology in our everyday lives, as are those we assist and support.

Although the internet has disrupted everything we do today, disruption is not new. Many innovations have disrupted the world. In his review of a book on the life of Guglielmo Marconi, Paul Kennedy writes this about the first decade of the 20th century:

Breakthroughs in science and technology occurred so often that it would be brash to claim that any one of them “changed the world” (which doesn’t stop proponents from doing so). The Wright brothers’ success in aviation in 1903 led to national air forces being created only a few years later. The automobile was becoming reliable, standardized and produced in such numbers as to change urban landscapes. Giant trans-Atlantic liners altered oce anic travel. Electric power was coming to houses and oil-fueled propulsion replacing coal-fired engines. The Dreadnought battleship (1906) made all other warships obsolete.

–“The World’s First Communications Giant: Like Steve Jobs, Marconi Combined Technological Insight, Organizational Skill and Business Acumen,”
The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 9, 2016; communications-giant-1473455458

Another blog posting mentions “the printing press, number systems, phonetic writing, agriculture, the recognition of natural cycles, spoken language, etc.” as having disrupted the world in the past (

This article covers some of the sources and techniques for identifying and learning about disruptive technology today and touches on how librarians, such as the law librarians mentioned above, are embracing disruptive technology. I speculate a bit about the future while recommending a general approach for moving forward in a world where innovation and technology are facts of everyday life. Selected sources and search ideas for answering questions and researching disruptive technology are listed in the sidebars.

Disruptive Technology Definition defines disruptive technology and provides a list of disruptive technology examples covering approximately the past 35 years. According to its definition, “a disruptive technology is one that displaces an established technology and shakes up the industry or a ground-breaking product that creates a completely new industry” (

Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen coined the term “disruptive technology.” In his 1997 best-sell ing book, The Innovator’s Dilemma , Christensen separates new technology into two categories: sustaining and disruptive. Sustaining technology relies on incremental improvements to an already established technology. Disruptive technology lacks refinement, often has performance problems because it is new, appeals to a limited audience, and may not yet have a proven practical application. The article cited above succinctly explains Christensen’s thesis:

Large corporations are designed to work with sus taining technologies. They excel at knowing their market, staying close to their customers, and having a mechanism in place to develop existing technology. Conversely, they have trouble capitalizing on the potential efficiencies, cost-savings, or new marketing opportunities created by low-margin disruptive technologies. Using real-world examples to illustrate his point, Christensen demonstrates how it is not unusual for a big corporation to dismiss the value of a disruptive technology because it does not reinforce current company goals, only to be blindsided as the technology matures, gains a larger audience and market share and threatens the status quo.’s examples of disruptive technologies include the following:

  • The personal computer (PC) displaced the typewriter and forever changed the way we work and communicate.
  • The Windows operating system’s combination of affordability and a user-friendly interface was instrumental in the rapid development of the personal computing industry in the 1990s. Personal computing disrupted the television industry, as well as a great number of other activities.
  • Email transformed the way we communicate, largely displacing letter-writing and disrupting the postal and greeting card industries.
  • Cellphones made it possible for people to call us anywhere and disrupted the telecom industry.
  • The laptop computer and mobile computing made a mobile workforce possible and made it possible for people to connect to corporate networks and collaborate from anywhere. In many organizations, laptops replaced desktops.
  • Smartphones largely replaced cellphones and PDAs and, because of the available apps, also disrupted pocket cameras, MP3 players, calculators, and GPS devices, among many other possibilities. For some mobile users, smartphones often replace laptops. Others prefer a tablet.
  • Cloud computing has been a hugely disruptive technology in the business world, displacing many resources that would conventionally have been located in-house or provided as a traditionally hosted service.
  • Social networking has had a major impact on the way we communicate and—especially for personal use—disrupting telephone, email, instant messaging, and event planning.

Information Industry Disruption

In a personal conversation I had with her, Barbara Quint, senior editor of this magazine, described the information industry this way:

The information industry in all its tiers offers a prime example of mature disruption. Step back and look at the orchard, and the world is online; information technology and sources are mass market, not just professional; everyone is better informed; new ways/sources of communicating information abound. On the other hand, publishers are folding, either completely or into larger firms. Sources, even venerable ones like newspapers, are eroding in size and scope and influence. Info pros from librarians to journalists find it hard to find employment or have their words heard in the ocean of info noise. Aggregators fail to aggregate the new digital content threatening their product sales and the careers of those who spend too much to buy their product, considering its omissions, and there’s an erosion of sources. New sources with new technology proliferate too much for even info pros to stay on top and critique them, much less support them. Pricing moves to free or freemium and traditional sources cannot adopt.

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Amelia Kassel has been president and owner of MarketingBase, a global business research firm, which specializes in industry, company, and competitive and market intelligence research, since 1982. A recognized author and international speaker, she conducts seminars for associations and conferences and gives workshops onsite for companies and organizations. 


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