Why “Disruption” Makes Me Erupt



Some trendy movements in HR just don’t live up to the hype.


Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, you’ve probably been inundated with the information about the concept of “disruption.” According to this new movement, disruptive forces are absolutely everywhere, doing almost universal good. I embrace change more than most people, but the ubiquitous calls to “disrupt” just make me want to erupt—in protest. Such movements, especially in HR, are rarely helpful and they seldom deliver.

Disruptive forces have been around since the inception of modern commerce. They have played a key role in the creation and sustainability of enterprises. They have driven significant shifts in the way consumers act and live. Think back to Sears, Roebuck & Company, which pioneered the mail order catalog in the 20th century. People could order everything from it, from a new frying pan to a new house, and have it delivered by the postal service.

The Sears catalog was its era’s equivalent of Amazon, and it just as dramatically disrupted the merchandising status quo. If not for that venerable company’s various missteps over the years, we might still be getting all of our consumer goods from Sears—its online catalog, of course—instead of same-day drone delivery from Amazon.

Uber is another example: without its disruption of the taxi industry, we would still be hailing cabs on the street instead of using our phones to get a ride.

Like consumer goods and services, HR is also susceptible to disruptive forces. We’ve seen the advent of automated HR processing, strategic divisions in the profession, the rise of subspecialties (talent management in large enterprises, for instance), and new-age meeting groups (such as the aptly named DisruptHR). My job is to track trends in HR and assist in the evolution of the profession, to ensure that we’re all working toward better practice. I embrace change and welcome technological revolution. (I’m the guy who waits in line for every new iPhone.) I have personally been involved in building buy-in for several seismic HR change initiatives over the course of my career.

But are disruptive movements in business truly rooted in better HR practice? I think not. And now I’ll erupt with some specific reasons:

  • Disrupt with me, not against me. We are all in competition for resources to sustain our enterprises. In HR, we are also in competition with other disciplines. Many would-be disruptors act without HR involvement. Moving in on other people’s turf is a part of life, but things can go more smoothly when change incorporates the perspectives of those who will be affected by the change.
  • The potential for error is too high. If we’ve learned anything from the big data revolution, it’s that actions can result in unintended consequences. Disruptive movements in HR that do not account for the human perspective magnify the potential for error. For instance, data scientists might approach talent issues without considering employment laws; later, HR might use that data to make hiring decisions that violate those laws. Another example is automated performance management processes; if the technologists making such advances do so without input from HR, they might ignore the context for such automations and the perspective of the end user.
  • Did you join because “disruption” sounds cool? Trends and movements can fail or backfire. Joining a group of HR disruptors is admirable only if it can make a substantial difference. Otherwise your participation amounts to no more than networking. The goal of networking is the expansion of potential job opportunities. If your mission is to disrupt your current employment situation, then you can accomplish it by joining the cool disruption movement. If your mission is to change the way you practice HR, you can accomplish it better by pursuing professional education and development.
  • There’s no “there” there. The focus of many new movements is often on “forming, norming and storming,” but seldom on performing. Too often, so-called disruptive HR events follow a distinctly non-disruptive playbook. You’re promised an experience that will change your world forever!—at the very least provide you with some valuable insights—and all you walk away with are a bleak picture of the future, no real plan, a few business cards and a less-than-stellar meal. Why do so many meetings of HR “disruptors” feel like condo timeshare pitches?

Lastly, I take issue with the “disrupt” movement because it makes me feel like a crotchety old man yelling at the kids these days to get off my lawn. My distaste might be ameliorated if the concept was really couched in innovating and advancing rather than simply disrupting. There needs to be some agreement on the true meaning of each “next big thing,” its objectives, and how it will effect change. Until then, I’ll just sit here in my rocking chair . . . about to erupt.

Tell us about your experiences. How have disruptive business movements affected you and your organization? Has disruption made day-to-day operations more efficient? What would you like to see from these types of movements?



The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.


I think there's real danger in disruption if it's just for the sake of disruption. All that produces is chaos. And the truth is we don't need to. Best fit design produces significant transformation without the need to artificially disrupt. All we need to do is to set clear outcomes for our people, their management and organization, and then work out what activities will create these outcomes, regardless of current state of best practice. Most times I've done this we've ended up with transformed if not disrupted HR processes.

Alex, thank you for the eruption. Needed.

Disruption by genuine innovation isn't simply rebellion against the status-quo. Sometimes the "way things are" was and is the original disruption. Disruption isn't even simply "change."

Clayton Christensen, the "founding father" of disruption, has a litmus test for disruption, questions that need the answer "yes" before you can claim a true disruption. Here are two of several questions he lays out:

1. Is there a large population of people who historically have not had the money, equipment, or skill to do this thing for themselves, and as a result have gone without it altogether or have needed to pay someone with more expertise to do it for them?

2. To use the product or service, do customers need to go to an inconvenient, centralized location?

Real disruption takes more than a bunch of five-minute talks, and willingness to change. It takes a deep, empathic, collaborative dive with the people you're trying to serve. In fact, if your "deep dive" is simply to knock out a competitor, that very mindset will distract you from the real process.

If you're going to disrupt, disrupt. Just don't mistake rebellion or doing something different or shouting "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore." as pure, innovative, value-adding, market-changing disruption. Lose yourself in the needs of your market, innovate, and then see what happens.

Entertaining but not substantial. I was looking for some good advice. This is more of the same and you need to change the order of team building to #1 forming, #2 storming, #3. Norming, #4. Performing. It is the order that happens each time something new happens in a business. I agree that HR is full of cheep meals and a pitch to take money. This should be illegal and not just unethical.
Best wishes

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