Technology

What I Mean When I Write About Disruption

By Ernie Smith / Nov 20, 2012 (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)

Too often, industries play catch-up to new technology. How can associations do more to keep their industries ahead of the game?

If there’s a common thread in many of the topics I’ve covered for Associations Now in the past two months, it’s one about disruption.

You don’t have to be a first-mover here, but if you’re running behind, late to the game, it will show.

Depending on the industry, disruption can foster a relationship that’s either favorable or adversarial. Disruption has the ability to destroy industries or sidestep them entirely, so it only makes sense, really.

Last week, I covered a story about adoptions which showed an example of disruption in a completely unusual way — one where infrastructures designed to protect people from dangers inherent in private adoption were being sidestepped to a degree through social media or sites like Craigslist.

There was a quote in the piece that said it all: “The internet has changed everything about adoption. We will never go back to what it used to be,” said by Denise Bierly, the president of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys (AAAA). It’s an apt quote. But you could replace “adoption” with nearly any other industry or profession, and the quote would still explain the situation perfectly. And if you go back a few decades, you could replace the “internet” with some other piece of then-modern technology.

The fact of the matter is, this kind of thing is going to keep happening. Disruption isn’t limited to a single industry or a single idea.

I came from newspapers, an industry uniquely aware of the effects of the internet, and I saw all this disruption stuff happen in person. In fact, one of the papers I was at awhile ago shut down unceremoniously — right around the time that the news was saturated with phrases like “bailouts” and “toxic assets.” I was fortunate that when I did leave the newspaper industry earlier this year, I left it by choice. A lot of my friends weren’t so lucky.

It only makes sense that now, according to the research group Statista,  Google made more money than the entire U.S. print media industry in the first half of 2012—roughly a decade after the introduction of Google News, a product that is still somewhat controversial even though, at least in North America, it’s come to be an accepted part of the media landscape. All this is despite the fact that a newspaper company had essentially prototyped a precursor to the iPad in-house in 1994.

Your weapon when fighting or keeping pace with disruption? Simply put, it’s technology. Not just for messaging—but for education, for finding common ground with the disruptors, for organizing an end approach. You don’t have to be a first-mover here, but if you’re running behind, late to the game, it will show.

And one other point on the matter: Instead of playing catch-up or defense when disruption arises, why not lead the innovative efforts, or emphasize the disruptive ideas at annual events. Start the skunkworks projects. Don’t treat them like unique assets that can’t be shared. Open-source the ones that can be open-sourced. At least, that way, your members aren’t left holding the bag when Google or someone else is eating your lunch.

Or maybe you’ll get lucky and make the meal everyone’s eating.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now and a former newspaper guy. More »

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