Disruptive technologies – A whole lot of fuss and bother about nothing new…

Disruptive technology has reappeared as a buzz word of late with librarians seeking to combat the apparently catastrophic and disruptive effect of technology. Disruptive technologies seem to promote the doomsday-ish perspective of the technological determinist, which was famously popularised by Marshall McLuhan(1). Before I distract myself and get stuck in a rant about the inaccuracies of technological determinism I’ll get back to the proposition at hand…the term ‘disruptive technology’ doesn’t apply for libraries! Why you ask? because as library and information professionals our role is to meet the user needs, to go where the user goes which includes ensuring that we are present on the technology they are most active upon therefore we adapt and evolve to the user’s needs.

So…what is a disruptive technology? Just like everything else within the technology and information theory field a clear definition of disruptive technology is (surprise surprise) incredibly ambiguous being defined as many different things by different people. There is a commonality however disruptive technologies are defined not by the characteristics of the technology itself but by the perceived impact of the technology. Leifer et.al identify the development of disruptive technologies as:

“radical or breakthrough innovations [that] transform the relationship between customers and suppliers, restructure marketplace economics, displace current products and create entirely new product categories”(2)

Padgett and Mulveny (3) place disruptive technology into the wider genus of innovation describing disruptive technologies as those which “come to change the products mainstream customers use”.

So whats the big deal? I’d argue that there isn’t one because the primary ethos behind libraries, information products and the information science field as a whole is serving the user/client. In order to be useful to the user we must be findable where the user is! So if technologies are adopted by the user (be the technology regarded as disruptive, evolutionary or simply useful) library and information professionals need to be in-tune to where their user is and ensure that they are there for the user to provide support on that new technology platform.

Take away: the primary issue is not that there are disruptive technologies out there but that we, as library and information professionals, need to be where our users are, if that’s on a new technology so be it.

(1) Marshall McLuhan a Canadian philosopher of communication theory coined the expressions ‘the medium and the message’ and the ‘global village’. His works include The Mechanical Bride (1951), The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and The Medium is the Massage: An inventor of effects(1967).

(2) Leifer et.al (2001) in Lafferty, S & Edwards J. Disruptive technologies: what future universities and their libraries? (2004) Library Management, volume 25 No 6-7

(3) Padgett, D & Mulvey, M.S (2007) Differentiation via technology:Strategic Positioning of Services Following the Introduction of Disruptive Technology, Journal of Retailing. December 2007, pp375-391.


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