Disruptive Technologies Can Be Useful

 
 
By Sean Gallagher  |  Posted 2002-11-01
 
 
 

Attention, all you technology project managers: it's no longer just cool to be disruptive. Now, it's a business mandate.

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Thanks to the popularization of the term by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christiansen, the delivery of a "disruptive technology" has become a badge of honor many vendors have tried to pin on their chests. Napster was disruptive—it changed the entire landscape of the entertainment industry, too much for its own good. It even inspired a legion of copycats aiming to disrupt other fields. Napster-like peer-to-peer computing is behind Lotus Notes inventor Ray Ozzie's Groove Networks, for example.

Groove uses this disruptive technology to help people share work, instead of music. This is where disruption can be good: as a spur to companies to shake up their business models, eliminate barriers inside their organizations and create opportunities to lower expenses, speed product delivery and find new customers.

But disruption can come with severe cultural side effects.

Take General Motors' own version of Napster—called eViz. Based on EDS' Unigraphics collaborative-design software, Microsoft's NetMeeting software and .NET Web services architecture, GM engineers now share work with peers outside the GM firewall. They work together around the clock, sharing applications and data files in "team rooms"—secure electronic workspaces where team members around the country or globe can meet without traveling.

This lowers barriers to working with the automaker. Any company anywhere can be a supplier. "There are service providers everywhere," says Nick Andreou, vice president in charge of GM Engineering's collaboration strategy. With pay scales still widely variable, a lot of talent abroad is cheaper than what is available at home. That means GM can take on more projects, since each can cost less.

IBM has a similar internal effort called "e-Workplace," a collection of software that powers electronic meetings, collaborative Web sites and instant messaging applications. E-Workplace has saved the company $60 million a year on travel alone, according to Gregg Cherbonneau, an IBM marketing manager who wants to sell the services to other companies. The system also supports an increasing number of IBM telecommuters; the Lotus division saves $10,000 a year for every employee who no longer works in its Cambridge offices full time.

You don't have to spend millions to stir things up. Ketchum Public Relations did it with eRoom Technology's off-the-shelf package, eRoom. Its account team members and clients now can check in via the Web from anywhere in the world. "It gave us total transparency to clients," says Ketchum's CIO Andy Roach. The result: more, rather than less, discipline. Documents get controlled better; fewer errors get through.

Like other forms of knowledge management before it, these "e-collaboration" efforts face some big cultural barriers. Partners and customers gain a lot of exposure to the internal processes of their collaborators. This can be uncomfortable. At Ketchum, discussions between employees that used to happen in e-mail now happen in full view of all involved. At GM, designers and engineers now have to put every draft of their work on a public server.

Even IBM has had to adjust. As relationships created by virtual teaming on projects have proliferated, IBM has changed how it manages people. Cherbonneau says team members and managers now have to agree on the same objectives—completing specific features by specific dates—so workers are focused on one set of goals.

Another reason for pause: while every collaboration tool provides some form of security, that security is directly in the hands of the users. In Ketchum's case, the teams themselves are responsible for administering access to their virtual collaboration space.

Now you know why this technology is "disruptive." And why you have to learn to let it germinate, without letting it grow wild.

Sean Gallagher is Baseline's Technology Editor. He can be reached at sean_gallagher@ziffdavis.com.