Mine eyes have been opened to the glories of disruptive innovation. I think I’m finally starting to get it, thanks to Scott McLeod.

I was lucky enough to have a seat in the room Thursday as Scott presented to a group of Minnesota administrators on the whole prickly, sticky ball of 21st century challenges facing school leaders. (One of the slides in Scott’s presentation shows a blindfolded CEO-type; the text reads, “The people in charge of leading school organizations into the 21st century often are the least knowledgeable about the 21st century.” Pretty blunt message to deliver to a group of school CEOs, but no discernable ripples or gasps in response. Guess they were too busy listening.) Later in the session, Scott reprised his K-12 Online Conference presentation on Clayton Christensen‘s notion of disruptive innovation and its implications for school leaders.

My understanding of disruptive innovation before yesterday was pretty pedestrian: new technologies or paradigms come along periodically, shake everything up, and displace the old. The cassette tape replaced the vinyl record, and was in turn replaced by the CD, which is now being replaced by the iPod. Everything new is old again. Lather, rinse, repeat.


What I’d missed all along is the part about how organizations manage, or are overtaken by, the changes. It ain’t pretty. Call it the Continuous Improvement Model Problem. Organizations are designed to serve their present circumstances, not an unknowable future, and will tend to continue along those lines, doggedly pursuing incremental improvement, striving to fit ever-more-snugly into their chosen niche, unless and until…disrupted. Most organizations are full of capable, well-intentioned, passionate people doing a bang-up job of serving constituents, clients, or students in fulfillment of their stated mission—which does not usually include trying to remake the organization into something it’s not. When the disruption occurs, it’s usually too late to turn the Titanic, and down we go, deck chairs, string quartets, and all. It’s tough for currently successful organizations to stay ahead of disruptive changes even if they see them coming; they’re tempted to try to keep both balls in the air, to try to serve the current mission while moving incrementally toward the new. Or, if the innovation has already arrived, to try retrofitting old systems to navigate new conditions. What’s really called for is a separatist approach. Establish autonomous colonies in unknown territories based on new, untried principles, let them compete directly with your current organization, and the ones that survive are the future of your organization. Correction: The ones that survive will become your organization. The “natural laws” of disruptive innovation suggest that retrofitting is a fool’s errand—all it does is prolong the agony. It’s a harsh, red-in-tooth-and-claw message, but an important one for school leaders to absorb.


Scott says that the disruptive innovation facing traditional schools is personalized learning, as represented by the growth of charter schools, alternative schools, and online coursework. You could extend that assertion into the realm of teachers’ professional learning: personal learning networks are emerging as a disruption to professional development as we know it. Those of us who are part of a PLN understand the innovation happening here—the incredible value of informal, networked, collaborative learning—and many have tried to spread the word. PLNs haven’t hit the mainstream yet. They’re still below what Scott calls the good enough line for any number of reasons: the learning isn’t credentialed, the research is pending, the numbers haven’t reached a tipping point. Some, like Kevin Jarrett, have come up with great ideas for bringing the global lessons of PLNs home to a local face-to-face network of colleagues, bridging the two worlds, and put them into action, open-participation barcamp-style.


Evangelizing about the value of PLNs strikes me, for the first time, as a brave attempt at retrofitting. In trying to spread the word, encourage integration of elements of PLN development into existing professional development models, and grow toward a critical mass, are we still trying to serve the current system? Are our attempts to persuade (and charm, seduce, coax, coerce, bribe, etc.) others to change their practice ultimately aimed at effecting systemic change? Maybe, maybe not. Change is good on an individual level. But it occurs to me that we need to ask hard questions about what we hope to accomplish at the macro level, what changes we want to see, where we want to put our energy—sustain the old world, or . The idea is forming in my head that, if PLNs are a disruptive innovation, there’s no looking back, no sense spending energy trying to retrofit into the old system. Deep participation in a PLN becomes a radical, subversive, separatist activity, like the Pilgrims setting sail for Virginia…er….Plymouth. With every blog post, with every tweet, each of us is writing and rewriting a kind of Mayflower Compact for a new world.

Steve Dembo was only half-joking when he suggested that participating in a PLN is like unplugging from the Matrix; once your eyes are opened, you can’t go back. Like it or not, you’re a separatist, a personal learning network Pilgrim. Where are new colonies being established, and what will they look like?

[I know, I know: This post leans way too heavily on a metaphor freighted with Euro-centric, colonial-imperialist baggage. Counterpoint: Remember what Malcolm X said about Plymouth Rock and where it landed.]