What is Disruptive and Sustaining Technology?

Technology has two categories, disruptive and sustaining. These terms were coined by Clayton M. Christensen of the Harvard Business School, in his 1997 best-selling book. Pradipta explains the differences between these two categories lucidly, in this article, exclusively for Different Truths.

Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen coined the term disruptive technology. In his 1997 best-selling 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. Such was the case with Alexander Graham Bell’s ‘electrical speech machine’, way back in 1876, which we now call the telephone. Later, it would totally revolutionise how people communicate. So disruptive technology refers to any enhanced or completely new technology or the way that replaces and disrupts an existing technology. It’s a way of doing things that render the existing technology obsolete. Disruptive technology is not just the electronic gadgets or fast things of the modern times like computer, cell phones, internet, fast cars, aero planes, electricity, etc., it can be different things in other fields.

One of the oldest (more than 10,000 years old) and still widely used technology in our society is agriculture, which is the domestication of plants and animals and the development and dissemination of techniques for raising them productively for food.

Before that man was a nomad roaming around, hunting and gathering food. Thus, agriculture became a disruptive technology and changed the way man took care of his needs. In medicine, things which changed the way doctors treat patients with the inventions of X-rays, laser surgery, MRI, CT Scan, and so on.

For companies, disruptive technology in the area of their business may sometime mean going out of business if it is not alert and abreast of the existing trends. A case in point is Kodak, which was the leading company once in photography. Its strategic failure was the direct cause of digital photography destroying its film-based business model. There are several such examples. So for companies to survive and thrive in business it has to stay at the top of their industries when technologies or markets change.

Because in this world as there is an old saying, ‘The only thing that is constant is change’. Of course, change is also related to the evolution of current processes and improvements in current markets. This is referred to as sustaining. Sustaining technologies are those technologies or improvements that sustain an organisation’s focus, goals and customers. Sustaining technologies allows an organisation to do their job better, to improve their products and to increase customer satisfaction.

Lot of companies excel at knowing their market, staying close to their customers, and having a mechanism in place to develop existing technology, which is how they sustain for sometime but than they do the mistake, which 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.

©Pradipta Roy

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Pradipta Roy

Pradipta Roy

Pradipta work as Software Engineer at Nationwide Insurance. His favorite pastime is watching old Hindi films and listening to Bollywood music. Originally from Bombay, he now lives in Columbus,OH, with his family.
Pradipta Roy