I had the privilege of seeing Clayton Christensen speak for the first time a couple of days ago. A professor of Business Administration at Harvard University, he is perhaps best known for his groundbreaking work in the field of innovation. In particular, he advanced the concept of disruptive innovation, of new entrants at the bottom of the value change introducing new technologies that disrupt the status quo.
Christensen has had a profound influence on how organizations manage, and hundreds of companies and tens of thousands of individuals have sought to take on board and utilize his ideas. He has extraordinary insights into how organizations innovate, and a mastery of how research helps us to understand what we can know of how the world works, as well as what we cannot know. His work explores the considerations of correlation, cause and consequence. We can understand the correlation of how things relate, and we can know what has caused the events of the past; it is far harder to anticipate the consequence of how current events will unfold into the future.
One of the future consequences that Christensen worries about is the evolving role of universities. For the first time, technologies have advanced to the point that they represent a disruptive threat to how higher education is traditionally delivered. There is the opportunity to deliver an effective education, to develop the insights and understanding that a university degree is intended to create, mediated entirely through technology. The networking opportunities, collaboration and communication that traditionally occur face to face can now occur online. An education can be delivered as well, but much more economically, then it has ever been before. The expense of delivering an on-campus education has become inherently avoidable.
What particularly resonated with me about his comments was an experience he related about visiting a university in Maine. Presenting to the board of trustees, he had an opportunity afterwards to chat with the president of the university. The president pointed out donor after donor, each of whom had contributed millions of dollars to the university. The donations were inspired not because of a degree, however. They were not gratitude for their education. Instead, they were motivated by the fact that each individual had-over the course of their university career-been touched by a person in a way that changed their lives. Many times it was a professor, sometimes it was a coach, but in all instances it was someone who stood out, who reached out, and who had a profound impact.
In other universities, time and again, Christensen has encountered the same circumstances. From that initial experience in a dining room in Maine, he has asked the same question at other universities, of other alumni. Each time, he has found the same thing. In any given institution, for any given period, there have been between twelve and twenty exceptional individuals who are recognized for their life-changing influence. Out of hundreds of professors, a couple of dozen names shine brightly.
When universities hire, they typically look for excellence in research. They may hire for teaching skill. They rarely, if ever, hire for qualities of leadership and inspiration, of service and care. They rarely look for candidates who in turn are seeking a position where they can positively touch the lives of others. And yet that, ultimately, appears to be the most tangible, the most relevant and the most enduring value that universities provide. They are incubators of excellence, where people have the opportunity to be inspired and mentored, to be guided and supported, and ultimately to be transformed.
These impacts occur at universities, but they need not be constrained to universities. after all, not all of us will go to university. Not all of us who have attended will emerge inspired. And few of us will become university professors.
All of us, though, have the opportunity to impact the lives of others. We can make a difference for those around us. We can choose to simply exist, or we can choose to transform. The power to inspire is the most disruptive innovation of all.