The DeHavilland Blog

Friday, October 21, 2005

Where does change come from?

I've been thinking a lot about education reform lately, specifically how it can happen in a system that is so large, has so much inertia, and - given that 90% of education is controlled by government - does not have free market-based incentives to change. (That last point isn't a veiled call for privatization, by the way - just acknowledgement that government tends not to be as responsive as revenue-driven enterprise.)

One fact I'd like to put on the table is that revolutionary change almost never comes from within: it almost always comes out of left field, from people who have nothing to lose and no vested interest in the status quo. I read James Utterback's "
Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation" a while back, and as he talks about industry transformation, he makes it clear that it's always an outside group that drives change, succeeding by offering a superior alternative to the status quo.

For example, the Tudor Ice Company came to dominate the sale and transport of harvested ice in the early to mid 19th century. Technological improvements saw the gradual introduction of commercial ice manufacturing plants in the South starting in 1869; this new industry, which could manufacture and distribute ice at any location (as opposed to harvesting from the North and shipping around the world), grew exponentially, peaking in the 1920s. Ice harvesters continued with process improvements - using steam powered circular saws instead of hand saws, for example - but the incremental efficiencies gained this way were no match for the quantum improvements and resulting benefits (price, availability, etc.) offered by the ice manufacturers, who gradually pushed the harvesters out of business. It is vital to note that the harvesters were not only not involved in the development of ice manufacturing, they actively fought it, and ultimately perished as a result of it. They lost the battle rather than adopting a better way to serve customers - they were so invested in the status quo that they failed to realize their job as getting ice to customers in the best way possible, and not simply as ice harvesters.

Of course, the manufacturers went through the exact same thing during the next innovation cycle. They fought - and fell to - the next generation of ice service, specifically the development of electromechanical refrigeration which gave people refrigerators and freezers in their own home, along with the convenience of making and enjoying ice by themselves.

This is not an isolated example: rather, it is the rule in innovation, that a company prospers through innovation, and then falls due to its interest in the technology it established when a new and better solution comes along.

There's much more nuance, and many more twists and turns, to any such story, and I would highly recommend Utterback's book. But the point remains: as a rule, disruptive innovation and radical change come from outside.

What does this mean for public education?


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