Clayton Christensen introduced the concept of “disruptive innovation” in the late 1990s. Since then, it has been used in multiple sectors to explain the impact of new technologies, the rise and fall of organizations, and the best ways to increase innovation within established organizations. With co-author Henry Eyring, Christensen has applied the theory to higher education in The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out. Below, Mr Eyring discusses some of the books more pertinent elements for the readers of Higher Education Management.

KCH: Let’s start with the basics: what’s the book’s core message?The Innovative University - Book cover

HE: The book’s core message is that fundamental change is coming to higher education.  We’re seeing the confluence of unsustainable cost increases in the traditional model and a disruptive technology, online learning, that makes it possible to serve many more students at high quality and affordable cost.  The result will be greater innovation than we’ve seen in higher education in more than a century.

KCH: You recommend that schools focus on their unique strengths, to stop trying to be all things to all people. But is a high degree of institutional focus (i.e. differentiation) possible given the highly decentralized quality of university management? Is it possible to make those tough decisions about “what stays and what goes” without far more centralized, top-down management?

HE: There has always been tension in higher education between those responsible for the operation of the institution and those who perform its key functions – the discovery and sharing of knowledge.  That tension is essential.  We need to make good economic decisions to ensure that the institution survives, but the value of what we do can’t—and shouldn’t—be measured in purely economic terms.  So it’s critical to have an ongoing, tense dialogue between administrators and faculty members.  The Innovative University attempts to provide a framework for making that dialogue more productive.  It highlights the environmental realities that require traditional colleges and universities to change, while emphasizing the things that need to stay the same.

KCH: You’ve done a great job of explaining the roots of the “bigger and better” model that has structured the efforts of traditional higher ed. I’m struck in particular by the case studies you present of ego-free university leaders who have turned their back on this model to do what makes most sense for their students and other stakeholders. However, it may not be realistic to wait for university presidents, accreditation bodies, philanthropists, and others to recognize the value of this new approach before substantial changes are put in place.

HE: People who choose to work in and around traditional institutions of higher education are unusually intelligent and well-intentioned; you don’t choose this professional arena for the money, and it’s hard to get in unless you’re smart and hard-working.  So we don’t have a leadership-talent problem in higher education.  The challenge is the decentralization of authority, which we’ve discussed, and the strength of the traditions—or “DNA”—that drive institutions to become bigger and better.  In The Innovative University, we show how many of those traditions, such as publication-driven, up-or-out tenure, were situational responses by unique schools to particular needs and goals that they had at the time.  Our hope is that these insights, together with mounting pressures in the competitive environment, will embolden university presidents, accreditation bodies, philanthropists, and especially faculty members to undertake innovative responses.

KCH: What has prevented “disruption” in higher education in the past? What is different now?

HE: Some industries are inherently hard to disrupt.  Take hotels, for instance.  Holiday Inn took the lower end of the market by storm in the 1960s, but it never cut into the business of Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton hotels.  There is something inherently expensive about large, well-appointed rooms and first-rate staff.  For a long time, higher education has been like that.  The advent of computers didn’t change the fact that students need to gather on campuses to get the full intellectual and social benefits of a college education.  Now, though, online learning creates disruptive new possibilities.  You can get a good education at a lower price than you’d pay for a traditional college experience.  Not all students are willing give up on that traditional experience.  Especially for young people, the college campus is more than just a video store, the place you go to get the content of a movie (or, in this case, a college degree).  But students on the margin, those who can’t really afford to move away from home and give up good jobs, will increasingly choose the fully online option.  And those students who choose the traditional experience will increasingly want it to cost less and offer more of the benefits of online instruction, not just its flexibility but also its growing quality.  That will lead to a degree of disruption.

KCH: You are “cautiously optimistic” about the capacity of higher ed institutions to reinvent themselves – to rewrite their DNA – and effectively reconfigure how they deliver value. However, the theory of “disruptive technology” – as Clayton Christensen applied to other sectors – suggests that is very rare for mainstream organizations to survive disruptive innovations. Is the book’s application of disruptive innovation to higher ed consistent with the theory’s “origins”?

HE: As Clay notes in the book’s preface, higher education has some unique features.  One is a consumer segment, young college students, who place high value on the campus experience.  Institutions that have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over many years building up their campuses have a great advantage in serving these students.  New learning technology won’t entirely eliminate that advantage in the way that PCs ultimately eliminated minicomputers.  In addition, traditional colleges and universities have faithful supporters, especially among their alumni, who are willing to subsidize their operations in a way that is rare in other industries.  In this respect, our study of higher education has led to a refinement of the original theory of disruptive innovation.

KCH: I’ve spent the last decade examining online higher education and I can assure you that, in the vast majority of cases, this “disruptive innovation” has been fully incorporated into the traditional university organizational model. The fact that this new format can exist happily at even the most conservative institutions suggests that in fact it’s not particularly disruptive. The theory of DI holds that disruptive technologies must be paired with new business models; to date though, online higher ed has been embedded in the traditional higher ed model.

HE: You’re right that disruption requires not only a new technology but also a new business model.  But incumbents can also adopt new technologies as sustaining innovations.  The challenge for them is to also change the business model.  We use the DNA metaphor and a study of Harvard’s evolution to explain why making that kind of change is especially hard in higher education.  New entrants, especially for-profit institutions, have the advantage of choosing a new business model from the beginning.  Combined with the effective use of online learning technology, it gives them disruptive potential, at least with regard to some market segments.

We are indeed cautiously optimistic that traditional institutions can use online technology in innovative ways and also change other elements of their business models.  Some are doing so via separate, independent units, but others are creating “heavyweight” innovation teams within the main organization; BYU-Idaho is cited as an institution doing the latter.  It’s hard for large organizations to change their stripes, but not impossible.  We believe that the unusual intelligence and desire to do good in the higher education community make it possible to beat the odds.

Other articles that may be of interest . . . 

Ron Bleed. A Disruptive Innovation Arrives. EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 42, no. 1 (January/February 2007): 72–73.

Tierney, William G. & Hentschke, Guilbert C. (2007). New players, different game: Understanding the rise of for-profit colleges and universities. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press

James J. Duderstadt. The Future of Higher Education in the Knowledge-Driven, Global Economy of the 21st Century, 2002.

Clayton Christensen and Michael B. Horn. Disrupting Class, 2008

Clayton Christensen and Sally Horn, Disruption in Education, Educause Review 2003

Part 2: Management Innovation and Online Higher Education

Can College Be Disrupted? 

Christensen on disruptive innovation in higher education

Great Quotes (#2) Disruptive Innovation


  1. I’m excited to read this book and to gain a look into the changing environment of education. It appears the industry is due for a complete revamp due to some disruptive innovation.
    I’m enjoying my study of such a great industry. How long or what do you think it will take to completely transform the institution of education?


  2. Brandon
    Thanks for the note.
    First, I would recommend this article by Christensen, “Disrupting College”:
    I won’t hazard a guess as to the time-table for disruption in higher education. :)


  3. Reblogged this on College Cohorts and commented:
    A balanced article with logical emphasis on moving more aggressively toward change in higher education.


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