Thoughts on Disruption

I’m writing during the lunch break of Disrupt Sydney, a one day conference run by University of Sydney on digital disruption. I was invited to attend by a recent person I met via Twitter, and as I like to shake my brain up every once and awhile it seemed like a good idea.

Like all conferences it is a mix of entertainment, networking and the occasional snippet of useful information.  With 8 weeks left before I leave Sydney the networking aspect is low on my agenda, hence hiding out writing when I could be collecting Linkedin profiles. I think two years of PhD work has made me a little too orientated toward being alone with my thoughts, which is going to be interesting when I have to go back into the workforce. (I also ignored the standard conference food for Mary’s, but that is just the fact that I’m not often in the city and because MARY’S…. Here’s a tip disruption conference organisers: disrupt the standard food and we’ll love you more.)

Disruption.  It’s big.  Thanks to our new PM it will be bigger.  It’s all about agility and innovation now isn’t it.  I do a lecture on cultural leadership and disruption (badly) in my course so I’m not immune to the trend.

While it has been touched on, very, very, very briefly, there is little critical analysis of the concept of disruption going on, here or more generally. And I can’t help asking to myself as I hear each speaker “is this really disruptive or the natural evolution of technology use?” Skip Rizzo gave a fantastic talk on the use of virtual reality technologies in the clinical environment including treatment of PTSD but is this really a radical departure? It’s still clinician driven, only the mechanisms have changed.

In my mind I keep thinking about Bespoke, Marcus Westbury’s recent ABC series.  This showed some great examples of a return to traditional making, along with examples of using technology for distribution and production, that to me is more disruptive than encouraging girls to study STEM.  I’m not critiquing the speakers, who have mostly been very engaging, but predilection for attaching the word ‘disruptive’ to a whole mess of stuff that has always happened.

Of course we’re in a business school, and mainstream organisational thought is where it’s at.  I signed up to a ‘workforce of the future’ workshop led by a Macquarie executive prior to attendance and I knew by lunch I was probably going to hate it.*  There’s a lot of language about creating community and bringing organic farming into the workplace (CHICKENS!) but not enough reflection on the fact that all this is designed to make people work harder/longer/smarter for the benefit of owners and shareholders.  Antony Funnell from Radio National reminded everyone in his keynote that the digital world is not a meritocracy and a tech genius with a laptop does not have everything necessary to build a world changing app- power structures still play a part. I just wished that level of critique was leveled at some of the other concepts.

True disruption is not just about finding new uses for technology to make more/save more money, it’s radical thought that changes the world. Most of the speakers today have talked about work that helps people, great, but disruptive? Not to me.

*I didn’t hate it, but I also didn’t get any useful information from it.

Update: This was in The Guardian today and I agree wholeheartedly.