Thinking about Academic Technology in Terms of Disruption Theory

I’m drawing the meditations in this article from a podcast I just listened to called The Critical Path. It focuses on technology companies like Apple and Google, but I think I can apply it to education technology. If you want to check out the episode (it’s fantastic) go here:

Jobs to be done

I’ve been reading and listening about the concept of “jobs to be done” of products and services and it’s giving me new ways to think about education and faculty and students and some of my projects.

Here’s an example of what “job to be done” in disruption theory is all about: A drill salesperson thinks they are selling to people who want drills. But the customers actually think they are buying hole-makers of which a drill is just one possible type. Other options might be hiring a carpenter to come in, or some innovative laser or who knows what else.

The gap between what the seller thinks they are selling and the buyer thinks they are buying leads to a vulnerability that other nimble companies can exploit (and, thus, disrupt) entrenched incumbents.

The “job to be done” in this situation is hole-making (and not drilling per se).

An unreflective drill company is going to be vulnerable to disruption and innovation of others if they do not focus on addressing the job to be done of hole-making, and instead focus solely on drilling (because their temporary alignment with customers may drift apart over time)

Engineers for the drill company will make exceedingly more sturdy and effective drills and then the marketing dept will trumpet those specs, but the customer might be just as happy hiring a carpenter or using a laser.

Customers aren’t thinking about drills, they are thinking about making holes.

How do you discover the “job to be done”?

Historically this was done through sales or marketing, with surveys directly asking customers. But that has been discredited. Focus groups have been discredited. You can get statistically significant answers to simple and easy questions. But it isn’t until you do deeper contextual inquiry into what customers actually do and are actually using (which they may not even be aware of or know how to tell you through a survey) that you can start to discover the job to be done.

For example, the rise and success of Facebook was not due to asking internet users what they wanted. Rather, it was discovered by addressing a job to be done. What is Facebook named after? The Face Book, basically the year book at colleges. But it bears almost no resemblence to a year book now as it has evolved to address the job to be done of social media.

Applying this to the academic world

If we are trying to crack the nut of an academic need through technology, we need strategies to effectively identify the “job to be done”.

If we take a project area such as Communities or Ebooks for learning: what is the job to be done? We know vendors and institutions are trying to sell all sorts of things (drills) but they currently do not appear to align with what customers think they are “buying” (hole-making).

I don’t have answers right now, but this way of thinking about products and services is helping me think through how we might proceed to learn more and design or identify solutions in these arenas.