What do you Know About Disruptive Innovation?

Disruptive Idea PicI have noticed a new term that is often chanted in the business world: “Disruptive Innovation”.  It seems to occur with frightening frequency in the technology sector.  Apple famously disrupted the music recording industry with iTunes as an example.  Can EHS be disrupted?  If so how? Hypothetical discussion you say?  I’ll bet that’s what the entrenched music industry people said…

CM Christensen

Disruptive Innovation is the term coined by Clayton M. Christensen (renowned Harvard
Business Professor)
to describe the impact of  innovations that enable a new business model to prosper at the expense of existing models.  Typically it is cheaper and allows a bigger group of consumers to obtain the product or service.  It may also solve problems for customers or other stakeholders that the existing products or practices don’t .  Frequently it is a new entrant into the market that is not encumbered  by the need to focus on sustaining innovations to fend off other existing participants and does not have to worry about existing profit margins on upscale products.

This is an important theory because it can be used to understand the future of markets and thus set the stage for effective business strategy to result in continued business success. Companies that fail to understand this theory can end up realizing too late that their products, services, production method or business model has been replaced in the consumers decision making process . If they wait until the moment the market (consumers) signal them, it’s too late. The incumbents usually can’t make changes fast enough at that point. It’s also quite likely that they don’t have the financial resources to invest in such a transition.

What if EHS was disrupted? How would you serve your customers as an EHS Professional? How would you lead your company to take advantage of this new disruptive technology? For these reasons it’s important for EHS & Sustainability (EHS&S) professionals to understand the theory and remain vigilant for disruptive innovations affecting our markets.

Fast Company published a good article on how to create disruptive innovations and it’s what started me on this post.  I would love to prove my skills as the EHS&S Oracle and legendarily predict the most significant disruptive innovations that will occur in the next 5 to 10 years. The only problem is, I don’t know them… yet. I too am on the journey to understand this model. There is a great video on “How to Spot Disruptive Innovation Opportunities” from the Harvard Business School (HBS) that builds on Clayton’s video above. The speaker in the video lists several key aspects of markets to look at as genesis points.

I want to focus on one method/aspect in particular: find the pain points and deliver a simple and cheap answer. What are the pain points for our customers in the EHS world? I came up with the following list:

  • Existing training methods
  • The difficulty in complying (human behavior)
  • The cost of compliance

We have learned from the videos that it’s not usually technology that creates disruptive innovation, it’s alternative business models. What is the typical EHS Business Model? I’ll try a stab at it in a sentence or two:

EHS & Sustainability professionals serve their markets (internal and external) by being subject matter experts.  They take specialized knowledge and attempt to deliver useful tools for the organization/customer to use. They attempt to influence the organization/customer to use these tools to improve their operations and activities.

I have simplified the mission and methods of our profession for the ease of this discussion. So what is an alternative business model? Here’s a couple I’ve been thinking of:

  • Crowd Sourced EHS – Essentially, it’s using the existing knowledge of the workforce to deliver EHS tools.
  • Outsourced expertise – a 1-800 EHS&S service that you call only when an issue or significant need arises. The EHS organization would have a large number of subscribers.
  • Free EHS&S service – The cost of EHS would be born buy sponsors who hope to sell their products to the organizations being serviced by the EHS&S organization.

It was not my goal in this post to develop these theories further. Perhaps in another post. My goal today was to get you thinking about disruptive innovation.  How to watch out and prepare for it, and to attempt to do it. Those who are successful at disrupting a market leave an indelible mark on our world. Wouldn’t it be great to leave such a positive mark for EHS&S in our world’s great institutions?

About Chet Brandon

I am a highly experienced Health, Safety and Environmental Professional for Fortune 500 Companies. I love the challenge of ensuring HSE excellence in process, manufacturing and other heavy industry settings. The connection of EHS to Sustainability is a fascinating subject for me. I believe that the future of industrial organizations depends on the adoption of sustainable practices.
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3 Responses to What do you Know About Disruptive Innovation?

  1. Chet, Good food for thought. I wonder what the next big thing in EHS will be. It is related to risk and business alignment. Sustainability is an incremental step. Good post.

  2. Chet Brandon says:

    Kathy, thanks for the kind words! Alignment of EHS&S and business objectives is certainly a market pain point (i.e. “It’s going to cost me how much to comply”???). Whoever comes up with an effective way to lessen that pain is set to make an impact.

  3. Hi Chet, You are correct in that disruptive innovation is not about technology innovations, but more about business model innovation. The question that should be asked is: “How do I make my product or service such that the current non-consumers can afford it and access it in a simply way? Technology may be an enabling tool for disruption, but not the disruption itself. Technology may be used to streamline a current complicated process so that costs and complexity are reduced. Here at Affygility Solutions we have created a disruptive business model called OEL Fastrac (oelfastrac.com), which is an affordable way for pharmaceutical companies to obtain high-quality occupational exposure limit monographs. Because of proprietary way we have streamlined the process now pharmaceutical companies in the third world can afford these documents. Prior to OEL Fastrac, these monographs cost 8-12 times as much.

    Keep up the great work!

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