Disruption is ‘in’ and innovation is so 20th century

So claims Mary Harper -head of digital Standard Life in Marketing Week.

Talking ‘as if’ things are ‘in’ belies a fascination for the trendy and fashionable. There seems to be nothing more ‘hem line’ savvy in marketing management than the term disruption. 

The question is ‘so what’? Is disruption really new and how is it any different from innovation? 

As a piece of rhetoric it’s pretty powerful isn’t it. It evokes awareness of an edgy world where surprises happen and the need to unsettle things is essential. 

Disruption is positioned as a fearful problem that faces your business…but don’t worry your marketing people are on the case. 

Be quick on the draw. To avoid being disrupted we have to disrupt. 

I agree with Mary. Disruption is a slippery concept and it means different things to different people. One thing seems clear though and that is ‘disruption’ is an effect, an outcome that is the result of something else. That something else being innovativeness!

In that sense dirsuption is hardly new at all. It comes from imagination, avoiding complacency and critical thinking. Things that most informed business people know can make a difference. 

Disruption is therefore notice of a meaningful difference. As Gregory Bateson would say:

‘A difference that makes a difference’

So what might the unintended consequences be for unthinkingly buying into and adopting the fashionable disruption discourse? 

Less reflective marketers will simply latch onto the latest management fashion without a care for where the ideas come from or the real world consequences.

In that sense Disruption could go the same way as Salience which became a licence to shock regardless of the relevance or the ethics. 

Disruptiveness could become an arbitrary management metric along the lines of ‘I don’t think you or your ideas are disruptive enough’ – you’re fired. Even more dangerous could be throwing the baby out with bath water – disruption for disruption’s sake.

Mary introduces the idea of disruption altitude to sensitise marketers to the need to think about the type of disruption that is relevant to their business. A good idea I’d say. 

The fashionability of the idea of disruption stems from the effect of ‘I know about something that you don’t’. A glossy attempt at seeming erudite and able to see beyond the self-evident. Most cult leaders do the same.

So to illustrate just how fashionable disruption is here it is being used to explain The rise and fall of Apple phone. Does disruption actually a better explanation than not watching the competition and giving people a reason to buy your products? 

Is there such a thing as helpful disruption or do you just want to be a bull in china shop? Charging around being disruptive and smashing everything to bits in the process? 

Being wary of management fads and fashions you avoid making a fashion statement and potentially looking ridiculous in the process! 

The Flowery Brand Rhetoric of Flora Margarine

I caught the recent news about Flora margarine’s re-positioning in Marketing Week today. You can read the article here: Powered by Plants

I was struck by a couple of things. One was the marketing rhetoric used and the other the omission.

The rhetoric was a great example of the battle for your mind discourse (cf Reiss and Trout). All to do with how the brand is perceived. 

The really interesting thing was the emphasis on features rather than benefits. Something we urge students not to do.

“Powered by plants” will focus on the plant-based ingredients, such as rapeseed oil, linseed oil and sunflower oil, used in the product.”

Only in passing was it mentioned that these result in (undefined) health benefits. 

The other thing was how reliance on those marcomms stalwarts was included too – ‘of course we’ll be emphasising  the role our product plays in creating healthy happy families’ Showing that you can’t escape the benefits in the end.

Remember folks – your happiness depends on our products.

Most telling for me was the talk of ‘re-positioning’. A term that infers sophistication, insight and strategic thinking on the part of the speaker.

Surely though to re-position you have to have a position to re-position from? So what is/was it? 

It would have been much more interesting to me to understand the brand problem that the ‘powered by plants’ re-positioning’ was the solution to. 

Much better than professional identity positioning of the flowery rhetoric in this article to my taste. 



Do management gurus really improve your business? 

There is probably nothing less connected to everyday business management problem solving than early medieval philosophy. 

Recently I stumbled across a classic of this genre called The Consolation of Philosophy written by a chap called Boethius. It is a collection of his thoughts on life the universe and everything as he awaits execution after being wrongly found guilty of a crime. 

Just the sort of light reading you need after a hard day at the office you might think! 

In his prison cell he is visited by the goddess of philosophy who helps him make sense of his predicament and gives him peace of mind.

It was something in the first couple of pages that caught my and got me thinking about the impact and value of whole management education and consulting industry. 

Boethius is initially visited by the Muses – who inspire him to write down his initial thoughts. Then the goddess of philosophy and wisdom turns up (conventionally called Sophia – hence philosophy – love of wisdom) who sends the muses packing:

“Who,’ said she, ‘has allowed yon play-acting wantons to approach this sick man—these who, so far from giving medicine to heal his malady, even feed it with sweet poison?”

Excerpt From: Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius. “The Consolation of Philosophy.” iBooks. 

Check out this book on the iBooks Store: Consolation of Philosophy

I wondered after reading this if management gurus of all types from university researchers and educators through to management consultants are as much to business as the Muses were to Boethuis. Do they actually provide deep insight and wisdom or do they merely peddle tool kits that simply structure the analysis of issues, the ranking of options and the selection of the silver bullet. 

(Ha! My predictive text suggested mullet – silver mullet eh? well they say the fish rots from the head cf Bob Garrat) 

So there we have it! From  Fish bone diagrams (cf Ishikawa) to Porters Five Forces, Prestcom to strategy canvas. From Belbin to Myers-Briggs. All very a-musing. Rather than giving businesses medicine are these really sweet poison?

‘Don’t be ridiculous Paul’ I hear you say. ‘These tools are really helpful, what’s your problem?’ 

Well to some extent I agree. Where I start to have a difficulty is when these tools are talked about ‘as if’ they the only game in town, the only way of understanding problems, the definitive way to describe the competitive space or the definite way of characterising people. 

Then I think these tools are ‘muse-like’. Tending to poison rather than medicine, something to be rote learned rather than understood and unthinkingly applied without a care for the assumptions they are built upon. 

Assumptions such as ‘the business environment can be objectively analysed and measured’ or ‘human beings can be categorically typed regardless of social context’.

Eric Fromm in his book To Have or To Be offered what I believe to be sage advice. He said we should beware of people who claim to have the answers. In the world of management this manifests itself as Normative advice. Advice that is purportedly factual and uncontestable, the norm, what you should or must do.

So what is a management educator to do? How can they create value if they aren’t telling executives what to do to solve their problems?

I wonder if it is fundamentally about developing awareness of how we make sense of this thing we call management (cf Alvesson and Wilmott). Thus it’s about inviting practioners to think about their assumed philosophy, about the nature of the business world and how it influences the reasoning they use to decide the actions they take?

Perhaps we are about visiting practioners in their psychic prisons and providing some intellectual medicine? 

What if businesses followed the advice of Plato mentioned by Boethius.

“That states [substitute organisations here] would be happy,  either if philosophers ruled them, or if it should so befall that their rulers would turn philosophers.”

David Bowie’s Laughing Gnome: Would today’s music business have killed his creativity?

One of the quirkiest songs that David Bowie ever wrote was Laughing Gnome (1967)

“Ha ha ha, hee hee hee I’m a laughing gnome and you don’t catch me”

You can hear him sing it here Laughing Gnome video

Now as you can see it is almost like a nursery rhyme and definitely not rock or pop. So would the suits in today’s music business have given it the time of day? I doubt it. 

Too arty, too commercially risky, not good television. 

How else do we push the boundaries though if everything we do is with half an eye on the commercial outcome? It’s a perennial business problem. 

Where is the difference between astounding originality and commercial insanity? I guess it’s in the mind of the person who has the power to decide. 

So does this mean that the music industry is simply a social construction of the powerful? The people who say what goes and what doesn’t?  Isn’t it the same for any proposed concept? New rocket launch system, new taxi ordering service, new food retail outlet.

What do you think – would The Laughing Gnome have secured a recording contract in 2016?

Is business school innovation just about technology? 

John Byrne has published a provocative article on LinkedIn titled The most innovative business school ideas of 2015.

It’s an interesting survey of 10 U.S. business school initiatives that are deemed to be innovations. All of them involve the use of technology. The notions of innovation and technology are thus conflated. It appears that there can be no innovation without technology.

John makes some interesting claims. Firstly he suggests that:

“Most often, business school professors trot out well-worn examples from world class innovators ranging from Apple and Facebook to Uber and Tesla.”

Whilst I’m sure such famous brand examples are used frequently I know that many of my colleagues use just as interesting and less well known examples from their commercial experience and research. 

For example in my world of gambling one of the most disruptive innovations was the ‘nudge’ feature on slot machines, an idea patented by Cranfield Ltd (not related to the UK business school btw) 

Secondly the article appears to be grounded in the assumption that business school innovation is all about the way in which course content is delivered.

“Among all the innovation to hit the business school marketplace this year, we think there are at least ten that truly stand out–and deserve credit for being highly creative attempts to improve business education.”

I would ask if the delivery of business education through technological applications such as Mooc’s or revised on-line courses are educational improvements per se.

Sure the ‘delivery’ might be novel but are the educational (pedagogic/androgogic) approaches necessarily much different. 

The article does hint that content /educational innovations matter, but John makes another claim that I’m not sure accurately represents how management research happens. He says:

“For years, academics in narrow disciplines largely constructed theories of business education in the abstract, hoping that their outcomes would eventually line up with market needs.”

Really? John I recommend you read Evert Gummesson’s book Qualitative Research in Management Research. The first implied assumption in your statement is that management researchers exclusively use deductive theory building as the starting point for their research. In other words they sit in ivory towers inventing theories about business practice and then testing them out to see if they are false (Popper)

The second is that researchers restrict themselves to narrow silos. 

Taking the first assumption. Along with many management researchers a significant amount of theory is derived inductively. It starts with real world practice and produces deep and insightful explanations of that practice. Theories are explanations not simply abstract prescriptions that are waiting for the real world to play catch up. They ‘are’ the real world.

Taking the second assumption. In my case when I examined key account managers and value creation I didn’t restrict my research to ‘narrow’ managerial theory either, I made use of social constructionism (Schutz, Berger and Luckmann, Burr) Identity  theory (Elliott, Lawler, Goffman) Relevence Theory (Grice, Sperber and Wilson) and Imagination Theory (Brann, Warnock, Beaney). Whilst I agree these might not be common managerial areas of study  and they are definitely not ‘narrow’ in themselves nor was drawing from a diverse range of theory an exercise in ‘narrowing’.

The biggest omission in the article overall seems to be the way in which innovative business school thinking is scarcely touched on. 

No comment is made about challenges to the taken for granted dominant US business school paradigm of management that underpins the examples of technological innovation given in the survey.

Where is the challenge to positivistic research methodology? Where is the challenge to linear rational management analysis and decision making? Where is the challenge to the de-humanising of management practice through focus on technique and process?

I would argue that business school innovation truly starts by disrupting the educational paradigm on which many courses and curricula are based and that includes the feted MBA itself. 

So rather than just seeing business schools as merely training organisations (and the hand maidens of industry) which seems to be inferred when John gives the example of a school developing;

” a pathway or of cohesive courses that help students develop a specific set of skills(my emphasis).

I would argue that the only way business schools can be seen as innovators is by challenging the very subject of business itself. 

I suggest that innovative business school thinking comes through provoking practioners to critically reflect on business as a social phenomenon, to challenge its principles and its ways of acting, to devise new ways of seeing. 

True business school innovation is thus not the application of technology. It is the use of the very faculty of mind that has been disparaged for decades as childish and unreliable and rejected as unscientific by the dominant objectively driven outlook of the US business school paradigm. The human imagination is the source and application of business school innovation.

Is it time to throw away your marketing ideas?

Trash-to-TreasureRecently I wrote about how ideas come and go in the field of marketing.

It’s as if marketing practice has become a parody of itself through the relentless consumption of the latest management ideas and the disposal of ‘worn once’ theories.

This analogy could be stretched further if you then think of university business schools as the sweat shops where marketing ideas are churned out for the insatiable demands of journals and readers.

The image on the Luevo website shown here seemed to capture the sentiment I had in mind perfectly. Imagine yourself as a marketing executive rummaging around your wardrobe of latest marketing ideas desperately trying to find something to wear at the next strategy meeting, product innovation gathering or the next campaign planning session.

An article by Rebecca Coleman in Marketing Week really brought this home to me when she wrote about us entering the post mindfulness era. No doubt many of you will have read about and even experienced a mindfulness course. All the rage over the last couple of years as a way of improving you work/life balance and your personal effectiveness. Now it seems mindfulness is just a disposable fashion item.

The issue of managerial fads and fashion is not new. Most MBA courses will get their students to write an essay exploring it. What intrigues me is why practitioners hunger for new idea after new idea when many of the deepest and most helpful marketing insights have been uncovered years ago?

Neuro-marketing is another. The lure of mystical insights into the workings of the customer’s mind is beguiling. But are we really finding out anything new and helpful about customer thinking and behaviour?

Do marketing people really need to know the inner working of the brain when we already know that novelty and surprise  turn customers on? Surely practitioners only need to operate at the level of analysis of the general phenomenon rather than delve deep cognitive and neurological functioning of the most complex organism in the universe? Are we marketeers or doctors of medicine? Knowing serotonin levels might be very interesting but does it impact on the bottom line?

What if we turned the issue on it’s head? I would argue that the central ideas we have in marketing are enduring (customer centricity, competitor awareness, value creation). What changes are the cohorts of new entrants into the profession each year eager to learn. Is this why there is a demand for ideas? Not new ideas but new people wanting to learn? For them everything will be ‘new’ and ‘new’ is better.  It’s as if the classic wisdom of the profession somehow gets lost in the pursuit of the fashionable idea. Ideas from the 1960s reappear with a slight style twist of today.

Just like fashionable clothes too the experienced business person will say ‘but we did that years ago’ (focusing on the similarity of ideas) whereas the early career marketer will say ‘this is the latest thing’ (focusing on the difference of ideas to satisfy their craving for novelty).

So if we look at the example of Sentiment Analysis which is all the rage in tracking social media to find out how is saying positive and negative things about your brand on Twitter and Facebook. Where is the difference between that and the enduring concern with understanding what your customers say about your products and services that has been around for decades?

Simply look at:

Keith R.J. (1960) The Marketing Revolution. Journal of Marketing.

Miles L.D. (1961) Techniques of Value Analysis and Engineering. New York: McGraw- Hill Book Company.

Both emphasise the need to listen to the customer.

Then look at:

Griffen A. Hauser J.R. (1993) The Voice Of The Customer. Marketing Science (12) -1 which is the seminal work on this topic.

Maybe it’s time to take a step a back, slow down and go back to the classics?

My suggestion would be why not ‘wear’ an original idea rather than some superficial modern day copy?

McKitterick J.B (1957) What is the Marketing Concept? In Frontiers of Marketing Thought and Science. Frank M Bass.ed. Chicago. Amercian Marketing Association. Pp71-87
Bagozzi R.P. (1974) Marketing as Exchange. Journal of Marketing(38)
Kotler P. Levy, S.J. (1969) Broadening the concept of Marketing. Journal of Marketing Vol 33,(1) pp 10-15
Kotler P. (1972) A Generic Concept of Marketing. Journal of Marketing, 36, (April), 46-54
Levitt T. (1960) Marketing Myopia. Harvard Business Review.
Levitt T. (1980) Marketing Success through the differentiation of anything. Harvard Business Review.
Levitt T. (1981) Marketing Intangible Products and Product Intangibles. Harvard Business Review.
Levy S. (1959) Symbols for Sale . Harvard Business Review
Borden N.H., 1964. The concept of the marketing mix. Journal of Advertising Research 4 (2), 2–7.
McCarthy J. (1964), Basic Marketing. Homewood, IL: Richard D. Irwin.
Aaker J. Dimensions of Brand Personality Journal of Marketing Research, 1 August 1997, Vol.34(3), pp.347-356
Holbrook M.B. (1999) Consumer value: a framework for analysis and research. Routledge, London
Ravald A. and Gronroos C. (1996) The Value Concept and Relationship Marketing, European Journal of Marketing, 30, No, 2, pp. 19-30.
Woodruff R.B. (1997) Customer value: The next source for competitive advantage: Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science. Volume 25, Issue 2, pp 139-153
Bower M., Garda R. A. (1985) The role of marketing in management. The McKinsey Quarterly, 3, 34−46.










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